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Mathematical Works Printed in the Americas, 1554 - 1700

Bruce Stanley Burdick
Johns Hoprkins
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
P. N. Ruane
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The author of this book hopes that it will appeal to diverse groups of readers; but he also suggests that it could be of particular interest as a reference work for historians and bibliophiles. However, given the overwhelming amount of information provided for the purpose of bibliographic research, I guess that it will mainly appeal to specialists within the last of his named groups. Such information includes the location of original works, catalogue reference numbers, description of the condition of particular books, publication details, microfilm versions and description of contents etc.

Overall, Bruce Burdick considers around 260 mathematical works printed in Mexico, Peru and New England in the period 1554 to 1700, all of which were written in Spanish, Latin or English. Of these, 220 are classified as almanacs, the most prolific source of these being Mexico and Massachussetts. Apart from appendices, the first half of the book is devoted works that are specifically mathematical, whilst the remainder is allocated to discussion of almanacs.

Interestingly, it is said in the Introduction that there is no originality attached to the mathematics that emanated from the Americas up to 1700. Nonetheless, mathematics was most definitely a part of the intellectual life in that region prior to the 18th century. Such observations are reflected in the description of the contents of the publications that are described in Part I of this book. Topics include arithmetic, logic, trigonometry and other aspects of elementary mathematics.

As for the second part of the book, one has to clarify the nature of almanacs and the extent to which they are mathematical works. In this book, the author’s description accords with the general dictionary definition of an almanac as being an annual publication containing calendars, astronomical data, together with tables of information relating to length of days, high and low tides etc. So, in that respect, the information is conveyed arithmetically at least.

Within the 140 pages devoted to such publications, I found it difficult to sift out the small amount of commentary on mathematical ideas from the labyrinth of bibliographic data. And descriptions of very many of the almanacs convey little or no information as to their mathematical basis. On the other hand, there are very many interesting (and often amusing) biographical notes about the compilers of such works and that, in itself, makes it worth having a look at this book.

Despite its specialist nature, there’s much about this book that I’ve enjoyed reading. Beforehand, if someone had asked me about mathematical works printed in the New World prior to 1700, I couldn’t have quoted a single example. In fact, I would have been hard-pushed to name anything prior to about 1850. But such are the ever-increasing bounds of human ignorance.

Moreover, I had no prior knowledge of educational developments in the New World in this period, but I now know that the earliest universities in the Americas were founded in Mexico City and Lima in 1551, and that there was a Jesuit College in Quebec in 1635. Harvard was subsequently founded in 1636 and Yale sixty-five years later. Also, until the end of the 18th century, it was Mexico City that was regarded as the academic metropolis of the American continent. Of course, since academic institutions promote the dissemination of scholarly works, the printing press was in action in Mexico in 1539 and Lima in 1584, but it wasn’t until 1639 that it came into operation in Massachussetts, when it was then an English colony (the good old days!)

A copy of this book should be in every university library, and it could also be of interest to those concerned with the history of American education.

Now an untutored (and somewhat disorganised) bibliophile, Peter Ruane is retired after a career in teacher education. Furthermore, he is genuinely happy that the residents of New England no longer have to pay revenues to the British Crown (but, as an English citizen, part of his taxes still go towards the maintenance of one of the world’s richest families).
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