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Mathematical Treasure: Webber’s Mathematics for Harvard Students

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Samuel Webber (1759-1810) graduated in 1784 from Harvard University. He returned to Harvard, or "the University at Cambridge," in 1787 to become Tutor of Mathematics. Webber was named Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in 1789 and then, in 1806, President of Harvard University. He held this last position until his death in 1810. (For more information, see Harvard Library’s Papers of Samuel Webber: an inventory.)

In seeking out a suitable text from which to teach his mathematics students, Webber compiled material from popular books of the period and openly published it in 1801 as the two-volume Mathematics, Compiled from the Best Authors. This book was later republished as his System of Mathematics, which became an American standard for many years. This is the title page of the 1808 second edition of the work.

On pages 58 and 59 of his text, Webber discussed the volume of a “parabolic spindle,” a device not recognized today but perhaps relevant to the spinning needs of the early 19th century.

Pages from Webber's Mathematics

The computation of unreachable distances is considered on pages 112-113.

Pages 112-113 from Webber's Mathematics

These images were provided through the courtesy of the Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Webber’s Mathematics for Harvard Students," Convergence (August 2016)