Mathematical Treasure: Japanese Protractor for the 1876 World's Fair

Amy Ackerberg-Hastings (University of Maryland University College)

Protractor Displayed by Japan's Department of Education at Centennial Exhibition

Japanese Protractor, 1876, Smithsonian Institution negative number 2003-35924.

After Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated a treaty between the United States and Japan in 1853–1854, the government of Japan engaged in efforts to demonstrate the nation could become a modern industrial and military power. For the 1876 World's Fair, the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the Japanese Empire Department of Education (established in 1870) prepared a large display of traditional mathematical instruments, mathematical instruments patterned on those used in Western Europe and the United States, and instruments that blended elements of multiple cultures. Thus, this protractor divides a circle into segments of 30° that are marked with Japanese characters for the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac.

When the fair ended, John Eaton, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, arranged for the transfer of the entire exhibit to the Bureau of Education (then part of the Department of the Interior) for a planned museum. The museum closed in 1906 due to high maintenance costs, and much of the collection was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1910.

This object and other protractors from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History are now shown and described at the website

Index of Mathematical Treasures

Index of Mathematical Objects