You are here

Historically Speaking

Betty Mayfield (Hood College)


In October 1953, a new column appeared in the pages of Mathematics Teacher (MT), a practitioner journal of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published between 1908 and 2019 that was dedicated to improving mathematics instruction for grades 8–14 and supporting teacher education programs. “Historically Speaking” was edited first by Phillip S. Jones and later by Howard Eves, two giants in the field of the history of mathematics and its use in teaching. The columns appeared in every issue for the next sixteen years, covering topics from the oldest American slide rule to the beginnings of set theory. Many of the columns were written by the editors themselves; others were submitted by other scholars or readers. Sometimes contributors responded to others’ submissions, setting up a conversation among the journal’s readers over the course of several issues.

In this series, Convergence features reprints of selections from the “Historically Speaking” column,[1] each complemented by a guest introduction written by a contemporary expert on the history of mathematics. These columns, or notes, are not traditional articles of the type Convergence reprinted from MT in its previous series. Rather, they are (mostly) short gems that offer a glimpse into topics which caught the fancies of the editors. Installments in the series thus represent two layers of history: the historical topic examined in the column and the column as a historical artifact in its own right. What do we know about the authors of the columns and their approaches to history or its use in teaching? What would a bibliography for the historical topic of a particular column look like today? Within the mathematics curriculum, what changes have occurred with respect to the popularity of certain topics, or advances in explaining them, or approaches taken to using history to teach them? Join us and our guest commentators in reflecting on changes that have taken place (or not) over the past 70 years, as we stroll through the pages of “Historically Speaking”!

About the Column Editors

The two editors of “Historically Speaking” were almost exact contemporaries. Between them, they helped to define what it meant to study and teach the history of mathematics in the U.S. in the 20th century, from children to university students.

Philip S. Jones
Philip S. Jones, HPM Newsletter, March 2007.

Phillip Sanford Jones (1912–2002) spent his career at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, where he held a joint appointment in the Department of Mathematics and the School of Education. During a distinguished career, he served as President of NCTM, Governor of the Michigan Section of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and founding member of the International Study Group on Relations between the History and Pedagogy of Mathematics (HPM). During his NCTM presidency, he encouraged the organization to devote a yearbook to the history of mathematics, which they did in 1969, dedicating the volume to him and inviting him to write the first chapter. The next year, Jones himself edited the yearbook, A History of Mathematics Education in the United States and Canada. He gave an invited address on The History of Mathematics Education at the 50th anniversary meeting of the MAA.

Howard Eves, MAA leader and textbook author.
Howard Eves, Convergence Portrait Gallery.

Howard Whitley Eves (1911–2004) held degrees in mathematics from the University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Oregon State University. In a long career at the University of Maine, he published widely in both geometry and the history of mathematics. He was also an engaging and sought-after speaker, equally popular with high school students and mathematics professors. He was a close friend of Albert Einstein at Princeton. His textbook, An Introduction to the History of Mathematics, first published in 1953, is one of the most popular texts of its type; it is still being published and is now available in Kindle form. He was also the author of six volumes of In Mathematical Circles, collections of anecdotes about mathematics and mathematicians, and two volumes of Great Moments in Mathematics (Before 1650 and After 1650). He was a devoted member of the Mathematical Association of America and was a founder of its Northeast Section.

About NCTM

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) is the public voice of mathematics education, supporting teachers to ensure equitable mathematics learning of the highest quality for all students through vision, leadership, professional development, and research. In addition to its current practitioner journal Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK–12 (MTLT), the council publishes a mathematics education research journal, as well as an online journal for teacher educators (jointly with the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators). With 80,000 members and more than 200 Affiliates, NCTM is the world’s largest organization dedicated to improving mathematics education in prekindergarten through grade 12. For more information on NCTM membership, visit

[1] The reprints themselves are posted in pdf format, thanks to an arrangement made possible by the efforts of Convergence founding co-editor Frank Swetz, through which NCTM has allowed Convergence to republish up to two articles from Mathematics Teacher annually since 2015.

Betty Mayfield (Hood College), "Historically Speaking," Convergence (January 2023), DOI:10.4169/convergence20230101