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Mathematics Education at West Point: The First Hundred Years - Charles Hutton

V. Frederick Rickey and Amy Shell-Gellasch

Charles Hutton (1737 – 1823) was born in Newcastle, England, the youngest son of an overviewer (supervisor) of a coal mine. When he was seven, Hutton was involved in a street-brawl and severely dislocated his left elbow. He hid this injury from his parents and by the time they learned of it, it was too late to treat it properly, so the injury became permanent. Since Hutton was unable to join his older brothers in the mine, he was sent to school to learn to read. After several years the teacher left and Hutton replaced him, thus beginning a habit of teaching by day and learning by night.[1]

One pupil that Hutton attracted was Robert Shafto. He made his private library available to Hutton and then encouraged him to publish. Hutton’s first work, The Schoolmaster’s Guide, or a Complete System of Practical Arithmetic, appeared in 1764 and became the standard school text in England for half a century. During the Christmas holiday of 1666, Hutton advertised that “Any schoolmaster, in town or country, who are desirous of improvement in any branch of the mathematics, by applying to Mr. Hutton, may be instructed.”[2] This in-service training was repeated the next year. That there was ample audience is attested to by the 59 schoolmasters from the Newcastle area who were subscribers to his next book, A Treatise on Mensuration (1767). Besides its mathematical interest, this work is noted for the woodcuts by the young Thomas Bewick, who became one of the great masters of the woodcut. Alas, this just makes the book more expensive for the historian of mathematics to acquire.

In 1760, Hutton opened his own school in Newcastle. This became a success and he became known as an excellent teacher. His patron, Shafto, suggested that he should move to London and apply for a vacancy at the Royal Military Academy in Woolich. The position was to be filled by competitive examination. Bishop Horsley, the editor of Newton’s works, and Nevel Maskelyn, the Astronomer Royal, examined the eleven candidates. Half were judged satisfactory for the post, but Hutton stood out, and he obtained this professorship in 1773. He remained at Woolich for 34 years.

Howson so nicely tells one event in Hutton’s career that we shall quote the passage in its entirety:

In 1786 Hutton began to suffer from pulmonary disorders. The RMA was situated near the river and dampness began to affect his chest; his predecessor Simpson had in fact died from a chest complaint. Hutton decided then to move, and bought land on the hill south of the river overlooking Woolich. There he built himself a house and also others for letting. No sooner had he done this than it was decided to move the Academy from the damp riverside to the hilltop. A magnificent new building was erected, but, in the eyes of George III, its attractiveness was spoiled by the presence of Hutton’s houses. These were therefor sold to the crown who promptly demolished them, leaving Hutton with a hefty profit from his speculation, sufficient to guarantee his financial future. Thus a physical disability turned him to mathematics and ill-health made him rich.[3]

Hutton’s most important work was his Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary. This appeared in two volumes in 1795.[4] This work is a comprehensive survey which includes biographical information on mathematicians and a fair amount of mathematics history for its time. Margaret E. Baron writes that the Dictionary:

…is probably the best known of Hutton’s works. Although it was criticized as unbalanced in content, unduly cautious in tone, and somewhat lacking judgement, the dictionary has served as a valuable source for historians of mathematics.[5]

Hutton is also famous as editor of The Lady’s Diary from 1773 to 1818, a total of 45 years.

His A Course in Mathematics was lauded before it appeared. In its ‘Notices of works in hand’ the Monthly Magazine (August 1798) stated:

From Dr H’s talents and long experience in his profession, there is every reason to expect that this will not only be a most useful and valuable work, but will completely supersede every other of the same description.[6]

It proved to be popular, appearing in numerous editions over fifty years. There were several editions that were published in North America and there was even an Arabic edition. It is not surprising that this text was used in the United States, for the British influence on American education was extremely strong at this time.

[1]A. G. Howson, A History of Mathematics Education in England, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 189.

[2]Howson, p. 63

[3]Howson, p. 67

[4]The USMA library copy of the first volume is not the first printing.

[5]Margaret E. Baron, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, VI, p. 577.

[6]Howson, p. 67.

V. Frederick Rickey and Amy Shell-Gellasch, "Mathematics Education at West Point: The First Hundred Years - Charles Hutton," Loci (July 2010)