The Greate Invention of Algebra: Thomas Harriot’s Treatise on Equations, Jacqueline A. Stedall, 2003. 322 pp., illustrations, bibliography, $124.50 cloth. ISB 0-19-852602-4.
Thomas Harriot (c. 1560-1621) is perhaps best remembered as a member of Walter Raleigh’s expedition to
Although he was a prodigious writer and calculator, he did not publish any of his scientific or mathematical findings during his lifetime. Upon his death, he left over four thousand pages of work to be deciphered. The wide scope and general disorder of these papers have defeated most attempts to organize them for publication. In 1631, a collection of his work appeared under the title Artis analyticae praxis, however, it was not very informative and shed little light on his methods or mathematical insights. In The Greate Invention of Algebra, Jacqueline Stedall has carefully selected, ordered and translated from the Latin, one hundred forty pages of Harriot’s writings dealing with the structure and solutions of polynomial equations. This cogent collection actually follows its original author’s sequencing and forms the basis of an algebra text, which Stedall has chosen to name Treatise on Equations.
Harriot’s recognition as a mathematician did not evolve until after his
Jacqueline Stedall, in her limited effort, has succeeded, and in doing so she has provided a valuable resource for serious researchers of mathematics history. Her book consists of a brief introduction into the life and work of Thomas Harriot followed by the translation of the Treatise. Facsimiles of some of Harriot’s original pages occasionally punctuate the text. The translation is straightforward – there are no explanatory comments added. The reader must draw his or her conclusions. However, this excerpt of Harriot’s work captures the spirit of mathematical grappling and exploration of the period. A reader is left with a permeating sense of inquiry. ‘If this is the result, what happens if I expand by another factor?’ Three bibliographies support the work. While The Greate Invention of Algebra is an excellent accomplishment, its usefulness will be limited by its scholarly scope and its cost.
Frank J. Swetz, Professor Emeritus, The