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'The Ladies Diary': A True Mathematical Treasure - The Diary’s Mathematical Significance

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University)

Although perhaps not recognized at the time, the appearance of the Ladies Diary at the beginning of the eighteenth century was more than an opportunist business venture; it was a fortunate event in the popular mathematical movements taking place at the time. When Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558 to 1603) was prompted by her advisors to support mathematical studies within her realm as an aid to navigation and increased trade, she shifted the responsibility to her business community, saying "Since this practice would most benefit them, let the merchants and traders support investment in mathematics training for the common people." And they did! Henry Billingsley (d. 1606), a London milliner, published the first English language translation of Euclid’s Elements in 1570. Robert Recorde (ca. 1570-1658) wrote a series of accessible mathematics books in English.


Figure 11. Title page of The Elements of Geometrie of ... Euclide, Henry Billingsley’s English translation of Euclid's Elements. For additional images and information, see "Mathematical Treasures - Billingsley's Euclid" here in Convergence.

The large trading companies, such as the Muscovy and East India corporations, hired mathematical consultants to train their navigators. Both John Dee (1527-1609) and Robert Recorde (ca. 1570-1658) worked for the Muscovy Company (O'Connor and Robertson, 2002), while Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) trained navigators for Walter Raleigh's expeditions (Ross, 1975, p. 50). Meanwhile, Leonard Digges and his son Thomas Digges (1546-1595) wrote books on surveying and cartography, and Thomas wrote a military manual, all in English (O'Connor and Robertson, 2002). Books like these, written in the common English language and promising beneficial and rewarding knowledge, were readily consumed. This new trend of basic mathematics books stressing the uses of the subject in daily life caught on and many applied books on topics such as surveying, navigation, gauging, and commercial computations were published to satisfy the ready market. Two examples are shown in Figure 12. Mathematical study groups such as the Spitalfields Society sprung up around the country (Cassels, 1979, 1980). Free mathematical lectures and instruction were provided in London coffeehouses. The services of reckoning teachers became available for private tuition and patrons emerged to fund mathematics schools and academies. The most notable of these new institutions was the Royal Mathematical School founded at Christ’s Hospital, London, in 1673 (Jones, 2015).


Figure 12. In the 17th century, a variety of self-learning resources appeared. The Pocket Book (1677), shown at left, by John Seller, was such a resource. (Four additional pages from this book can be seen here in Convergence.) The book on the right, John Taylor’s Treasury of Mathematicks, was very popular. (Seven additional pages from this book can be seen here in Convergence.) England, especially the region around London, became the realm of “mathematical practitioners,” skilled users of mathematics.

From the 17th through the early 18th centuries, the momentum of popular mathematics appreciation and learning grew. New sources, opportunities, and challenges were needed to feed the movement. Problem-solving exercises helped to satisfy the need for new experiences, creativity, and the further enrichment of this expanding area of acquired knowledge. The Ladies Diary, with its changing selection of mathematical problems and published solution schemes, supporting discussions, and advice, satisfied a waiting and ready audience. So successful was this feature that it encouraged the emergence of a large number of similarly styled publications: periodicals, newspaper columns, and compilations devoted to mathematical problem solving. While the Ladies Diary can be classified as a journal devoted to recreational mathematics, a few of the emerging periodicals were more academic and rigorous in their mathematical considerations and would eventually evolve into proper “research journals.” Thus, the Diary’s legacy of promoting the exploration and investigation of mathematical problems in actuality advanced the growth and enrichment of mathematics.

While the format of the Ladies Diary was admired and copied in Great Britain, it was also exported to the Continent and North America. George Baron (1769-1812), an immigrant from England, became a mathematics instructor at the new American Military Academy at West Point. In 1804, Baron began to publish a mathematical periodical directly fashioned after the Ladies Diary. He called it the Mathematical Correspondent. As a young man in England, he had solved several problems in the Diary and felt that a journal of its kind would benefit the people of his new country. Soon after initiating this project, Baron died. Editorship of the fledgling journal passed into the hands of Robert Adrain (1775-1843), also an expatriate from England and a self-taught mathematician (Swetz, 2008, p. 334). Baron had managed the Correspondent poorly and its new editor could not save it. It faltered, but in 1808 Adrain began a new journal, The Analyst or Mathematical Museum, which also reflected the Diary in its purpose and composition. But readers found its mathematics too difficult and this journal lasted only until 1814. A schoolmaster in New York City, Melatiah Nash (ca. 1768-1830), published another periodical influenced by the Ladies Diary. Started in 1820, he called his publication the Ladies and Gentleman’s Diary. It lasted only two years. Despite these stops and starts, the beginnings of popular mathematics literature in the United States can be traced to the Ladies Diary, the English almanac designed for women and begun in 1704 by a Coventry schoolmaster.

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