History of Mathematics

History of Mathematics is a multidisciplinary subject with a strong presence in Oxford. This page details some of the group's links and activities; short case studies of some of the work carried out by members of the group can be found elsewhere on the Oxford Mathematics website: here and here.

For a long time, Oxford mathematicians have been interested in the history of their subject.  Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton College and founder of the Savilian Chairs of Geometry and Astronomy in 1619, owned a fine collection of classical mathematics books that he left to the Bodleian Library, and several of his geometry professors became interested in specific aspects of the History of Mathematics: John Wallis wrote the first history of algebra in 1685 and Edmond Halley made a fine translation of Apollonius’s Conics in 1710, whilst Baden Powell wrote on the history of applied mathematics in the mid-19th century.  

In 1961, Dr Ida Busbridge, Fellow of Mathematics at St Hugh’s College from 1945 to 1970, and, at the time, President of the Invariant Society (Oxford University’s Undergraduate Mathematics Society), gave her Presidential Address in which she outlined the history of Oxford, from earliest times to the 20th century.  At the time, little was known about the subject, and her lectures on the subject over many years were informative and always greatly enjoyed.  The text of her lecture was published in pamphlet form by the Oxford Mathematical Society in 1974, and can be read in its entirety here.  Much has happened since, but her account is still of great interest.

A much fuller account appeared in the multi-authored illustrated volume Oxford Figures: 800 Years of the Mathematical Sciences, edited by John Fauvel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson, and published by Oxford University Press in October 1999.  An expanded edition (see below), updated to the present day, was published in September 2013, in time for the opening of the Andrew Wiles Building two weeks later.  A series of posters on the History of Mathematics in Oxford is on display in the basement of the Andrew Wiles Building; the posters may also be found in an electronic form here.

In 2003, a History of Mathematics option was introduced into the undergraduate curriculum.  Covering the period 1600–1900 (the period when most of the mathematics studied by undergraduates was produced), it was initially team-taught by Jacqueline Stedall, Peter Neumann, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson.  The course consists of a 16-lecture course in Michaelmas Term, examined in Finals, and an 8-lecture reading course of seminars in Hilary Term, examined by an extended essay.  Throughout the course, and in the latter in particular, there is an emphasis on reading original sources, in translation where necessary. 

 

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Oxford Figures – see the OUP catalogue for further details


 

 

 

 

Historians of mathematics in Oxford 

Inside the Mathematical Institute ... 

... and others in Oxford with an active interest in history of mathematics

  • Philip Beeley – correspondence of John Wallis 
  • Rosie Cretney – the correspondence of Leonhard Euler
  • Howard Emmens – history of group theory
  • Daniel Isaacson – the rise of modern logic, 1879–1931
  • Raymond Flood – Irish mathematics
  • Keith Hannabuss  – 19th-century mathematics
  • Stephen Johnston – practical mathematics and mathematical instruments, particularly Renaissance and early modern
  • Benjamin Wardhaugh – social history of mathematics in early modern England
  • Robin Wilson – 19th-century mathematics, and the history of combinatorics
Beyond Oxford, see also:

Seminars

The group holds a semiregular departmental seminar, and is also involved with a seminar in the History of the Exact Sciences, held at All Souls College during Hilary Term.

Teaching 

The group offers the following teaching: