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'The Ladies Diary': A True Mathematical Treasure - Conclusion

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, mathematics institutions for learning and teaching, had become more formally established in Great Britain. New philosophies in teaching and textbook writing greatly improved the opportunities for the learning of mathematics. Industrial and technological advances heightened the recognition and importance of applied mathematics. With the availability of these resources, sales of the Ladies Diary decreased and it was amalgamated with a companion journal in 1841 to become The Lady’s and Gentleman’s Diary, a publication that would serve problem-solvers for the next thirty years.

Figure 13. Cover of the last issue of the Ladies' Diary, featuring Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901.

Let the final comments be from a qualified observer of the period, John Playfair (1748-1819), an eminent mathematician, highly respected teacher, and active mathematical reformer. In a detailed 1808 review of the published volumes of Laplace’s Traité de Mécanique Céleste, Playfair lamented England’s scientific isolation from the Continent. Further commenting on the state of British mathematics, he noted:

At the same time that we state these facts as incontrovertible proofs of the inferiority of the English mathematicians to those of the Continent, in the higher departments; it is but fair to acknowledge, that a certain degree of mathematical science, and indeed no inconsiderable degree, is perhaps more widely diffused in England, than in any other country of the world. The Ladies' Diary, with several other periodical and popular publications of the same kind, are the best proofs of this assertion. In these, many curious problems, not of the highest order indeed, but still having a considerable degree of difficulty, and far beyond the mere elements of science, are often to be met with; and the great number of ingenious men who take a share in proposing and answering these questions, whom one has never heard of any where else, is not a little surprising. Nothing of the same kind, we be believe, is to be found in any other country. The Ladies Diary has now been continued for more than a century.... (Playfair, 1808, p. 282)

Playfair went on to berate the "enigma" puzzles of the Diary as foolish and a waste of time, an opinion that many, myself included, would consider incorrect. Rather, the enigma was another form of problem-solving. Playfair had high praise for the "geometrical part" of the Diary:

The geometrical part, however, has always been conducted in a superior style; the problems proposed have tended to awaken curiosity, and the solutions to convey instruction in a much better manner than is always to be found in more splendid publications. If there is a decline, therefore, or a deficiency in mathematical knowledge in this country, it is not to the genius of the people, but to some other cause that it must be attributed. (Playfair, ibid.)

The “other cause” Playfair referred to was the tradition bound, conservative rationale for the learning and teaching of mathematics held by the English: that is, mathematics viewed mainly as a commercial activity or merely as a mental exercise of limited worth to a gentleman and of no value or relevance to a lady. Both the social and intellectual changes of the nineteenth century were rapidly altering this situation and the Ladies Diary served as a major forerunner and provocateur of these changes.

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University), "'The Ladies Diary': A True Mathematical Treasure - Conclusion," Convergence (August 2018)