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Robert Recorde: Tudor Polymath, Expositor and Practicioner of Computation

Jack Williams
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
History of Computing
[Reviewed by
John Denniss
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This book fills a gap in historical biography that has existed for far too long. Recorde’s career as physician, mathematician, Crown servant and pioneering author in the turbulent years of Tudor England should command wide interest. Till now we have had to make do with partial biographies such as the chapter in A. G. Howson’s classic A History of Mathematics Education in England, but now Jack Williams has given us what might well be the definitive biography, a work which is clearly the product of much research.

The majority of the chapters describe Recorde’s life and career, but four are devoted to the description and analysis of his four mathematical works (all, happily, now in print) for which he is most famous. All chapters are helpfully preceded by abstracts. This book can therefore be approached in different ways — read straight through, dipped into or simply used as a reference book.

Williams gives quotes and examples from the various books but only in one instance (p. 184), does he give a copy of an actual extract from a book, in that case from The Whetstone of Witte. I think this is a pity. A few more such examples, such as a diagram of the counter arithmetic from The Grounde of Artes, say, and a page from The Pathway to Knowledg, would have shown how Recorde tried to display his ideas visually to make them as accessible as possible. As Williams notes, Recorde did not give proofs of theorems; so how did he present a theorem on the page?

But this is a minor criticism of what is otherwise an excellent book. I can recommend it.

John Denniss lectured on Mathematical Education for nearly 40 years. Since retiring he has collected, and studied, a vast array of antiquarian mathematical books. In this context, he has a particular interest in arithmetical textbooks, on which he has spoken at various conferences and published many articles. However, his passion for historical texts comes second only to his attachment to an institution known as Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.

A Chronology

Part I: ‘Profite and Commoditie’: the Practitioners


Robert Recorde and William Herbert Earl of Pembroke

The Affair at Clonmines

The Physician

Part II: Intrinsic Worth


The Grounde of Artes

The Pathway to Knowledg

The Castle of Knowledge

The Whetstone of Witte

Antiquary and Linguist

Readers and Publisher

Part III: Retrospect and Prospects

Retrospect and Prospects

His Will and His Religion