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The Correspondence of Charles Hutton (1737–1823): Mathematical Networks in Georgian Britain

Benjamin Wardhaugh
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
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It’s easy to assume (and many mathematicians do assume) that the criterion for being an important figure in the history of mathematics is having proved new theorems or introduced new concepts. A little bit of reflection shows that this is not true: the mathematical play needs many supporting actors. They are authors of textbooks, teachers, popularizers, creators of professional associations, people who make things happen. This books focuses on just such a figure.

Charles Hutton lived from 1737 to 1823 in England, and his contribution to mathematics is almost entirely his popular and expository writing. I first learned about him through his Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1795. The Dictionary provides an interesting window into mathematics at the end of the 18th century as viewed from England.

More significantly, perhaps, Hutton was for many years the editor of the Ladies’ Diary, the most important “philomath” publication in 18th century England. As we read in the introduction (p. xviii):

For a spectrum of different contributors—schoolmasters, schoolchildren, tradesmen, leisured enthusiasts—these periodicals were a site in which a degree of prestige and even, in a limited sense, fame could be acquired, for the investment of a few hours or tens of hours of work on sometimes difficult, abstruse, or laborious mathematical problems. 

The editor of this volume of correspondence, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is working on a full-scale biography of Hutton. For that, a necessary step is to collect whatever letters to and from Hutton survive. It turns out that only a few exist, and that they are widely dispersed, hence justifying the publication of this slim collection of 133 letters.

As the subtitle indicates, the main business of these letters is the creation and maintenance of networks, ranging from the network of people interested in recreational mathematics to the Royal Society. Very little mathematics is discussed explicitly, though bits do appear here and there, often without details. There are letters requesting and/or offering support for appointments, letters that were sent together with copies of Hutton’s books, and letters intended to explain away potential grievances. And there are letters with news, good and bad, the most poignant of which is the letter about the death of Hutton’s daughter and son-in-law in Guadeloupe, victims of yellow fever.

This book makes an excellent appetizer for the full-scale biography to come. It also sheds light on what it was like to be involved in mathematics in England at this time: not an easy road.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME.