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Mathematical Treasure: Halley's Conics of Apollonius

Frank Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

While he was Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University, the noted astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) published a translation of the Conics of Apollonius of Perga (c. 262-190 BCE), Apollonii Pergaei conicorum (1710). This tract appears to be part of a series of works produced by the Oxford faculty at this time. The title page is shown above.

The frontispiece for this work, shown above, has frequently appeared in presentations given by contemporary historians of mathematics, particularly Fred Rickey. It shows a group of shipwrecked survivors on the shore of the island of Rhodes. Among this group is the Socratic philosopher Aristippus (ca. 435-356 BCE) who upon seeing the diagrams drawn on the sand exclaims, “We have nothing to fear as I see the presence of men.’’ The implication given is that only civilized men would be doing geometrical problems. The diagrams reflect the contents of Apollonius’ Conics.

Seven years earlier, David Gregory had published a commentary on Euclid’s Elements with the same frontispiece, except that the diagrams in the sand were of geometric ideas from Euclid’s Elements. See Mathematical Treasure: David Gregory’s Commentary on Euclid.

These images are supplied through the courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology. A complete viewing of these works can be found in the library’s digital collection.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Halley's Conics of Apollonius," Convergence (January 2016)