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Mathematical Treasure: Ladies' Diary Mathematical Problems

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University)

The Ladies Diary or Woman's Almanack was a periodical published in England from 1704 to 1841. Designed to entertain women, it soon came to satisfy its readers' requests for problems in mathematics. It became the first English-language journal devoted to problem solving and a testament to women’s ability to do mathematics. Many of its problems were compiled into separate collections, which became valuable aids in mathematics learning. The cover of the 1740 edition of the Ladies Diary is shown below. It bears a portrait of Caroline, Queen Consort of King George II from 1727 until her death in 1737. (Source: Princeton University Library via Google Books)

Shown below is the cover of the 1787 edition of the Ladies' Diary or Woman’s Almanack. It bears a portrait of Charlotte, who reigned as Queen Consort of King George III from 1761 until her death in 1818. (Source:  Internet Archive, from a book held by Oxford University Library and digitized by Google)

The cover of the 1840 Ladies' Diary, shown below, features a portrait of Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901.

One of the Ladies' Diary’s outstanding features was that, after posing mathematical questions one year, it supplied correct solutions the following year with the computational procedures shown. This practice allowed readers to both affirm their solutions and learn new mathematical approaches. Here is a sampling of problems and solutions from different time periods:

1709 (Leybourn, Vol. I, p. 5): 

1745 (Leybourn, Vol. I, p. 360):


1810 (Leybourn, Vol. IV, p. 119):

All three of the pages shown above, are from Thomas Leybourn's 1817 collection, The Mathematical Questions Proposed in the Ladies’ Diary and Their Original Answers, together with Some New Solutions, from its Commencement in the Year 1704 to 1816 (4 vols.), with volume and page number as indicated. The title page of Volume I is shown below.

Volume I begins with the problems shown below from the 1707 issue of the Ladies Diary. Thomas Leybourn (1770-1840) was a British mathematician and teacher at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He edited and published several mathematical periodicals, but his most popular work was the compilation of the mathematical problems from the Ladies Diary shown here.

(Source for the five preceding images: HathiTrust Digital Archive, from a book held by the University of Michigan Library and digitized by Google)

For more information about the Ladies Diary, see the Convergence article, "The Ladies Diary: A True Mathematical Treasure."

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Ladies' Diary Mathematical Problems," Convergence (August 2018)