Online Museum Collections in the Mathematics Classroom – Research Projects

Amy Ackerberg-Hastings (University of Maryland University College) and Amy Shell-Gellasch (Montgomery College)

Classroom Application #1: Research Projects

Each of the National Museum of American History (NMAH) Object Group sites has a Resources page with a bibliography (often annotated) of primary and secondary sources related to the object. The catalog descriptions of individual objects are designed to be understood by a range of audiences, including researchers, teachers and students, and the general public. Almost all of these records end with a list of sources for the object, its maker, or its previous owner (if known). As NMAH physical sciences curator Debby Warner puts it, the entries should provide enough information so that visitors understand what they are seeing and lack enough information so that they are inspired to learn more on their own. Thus, instructors can assign papers that report on the history of a category of objects, or they can ask students to find out more about particular objects. Additionally, students and professors can search the storerooms of their institutions for objects such as geometric models, slide rules, or blackboard drawing instruments. Even if the actual teaching tools have not survived, photographs may be found in college or university archives. Information learned about items owned by one's institution may be shared with a campus newspaper or alumni magazine. Small exhibits may be mounted in a department or by collaborating with a university museum; one guide to preparing a display is “Exhibiting Mathematical Instruments: Making Sense of Your Department's Material Culture,” by Peggy Aldrich Kidwell and Amy Ackerberg-Hastings, in Hands on History: A Resource for Teaching Mathematics, ed. Amy Shell-Gellasch (Washington, DC, 2007), 163–174.

Beyond the sources that NMAH staff and volunteers have already identified, additional data can be unearthed by creative use of search engines, visits to the Ancestry and Find A Grave websites, perusals of online newspapers, and searches of digitized collections of 19th- and 20th-century books, such as Google Books and the Internet Archive. Mathematical instruments were discussed in instruction manuals, textbooks on practical mathematics and engineering, periodicals, patent records, and even in fiction—for example, Maria Edgeworth's short story, “Lame Jervas” (completed before 1804), mentioned the mathematical instrument workshop of Jesse Ramsden in chapter 3 and cited diplomat and travel writer Sir John Barrow's A Description of Pocket and Magazine Cases of Drawing Instruments: in which is explained the use of each instrument, and particularly of the sector and plain scale, Gunter's scale, &c. (ca 1792) in chapter 4. Alex Kasman's Mathematical Fiction site can be worth checking.

With help from history teachers and librarians, mathematics instructors can also work with students on connecting the objects to other historical developments. For instance, while each object group is fairly comprehensive in presenting the chronological history of the type(s) of instruments included in the group, almost every group is especially well-documented for the decades between about 1890 and 1920. This is probably partly because American manufacturing and business had its “take-off” period during the Second Industrial Revolution: American makers were able to produce their own instruments in large quantities, and communication and transportation technologies enabled makers to market their wares across the nation and sometimes even internationally. Particularly with drawing instruments, however, engineers and draftsmen often continued to believe that Germany and Switzerland produced the highest quality items, so imports are found in the collection through the middle of the 20th century. Meanwhile, this period was also the take-off of the professionalization of engineering and the trades, so there was a growing audience to buy mathematical instruments. In many ways, it is easier to document the history of instruments from this period than those that were made earlier or later, since manufacturers' catalogs were printed for mass distribution. These catalogs are now out of copyright, so some that may not be on hand in university libraries have been digitized for GoogleBooks or the HathiTrust.

Other stories that can be told by poring through the NMAH mathematics collections include those of the manufacturers Keuffel & Esser, Pickett, Felsenthal, Dietzgen, and Safe-T; the Empire of Japan Department of Education’s exhibit in Philadelphia at the Centennial Exposition (the 1876 World's Fair); patent models submitted by American inventors; objects collected by Leslie Leland Locke (1875–1943), a mathematics professor, avid collector of calculating machines, and charter member of the MAA; and instruments that may have been used by the Draper family of New York City, which was prominent in meteorology and astronomy in the late 19th century. The object groups reveal the diversity of the NMAH mathematical collections and thus the diversity of mathematical activities in American history.