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Mathematics Education at West Point: The First Hundred Years - Introduction

V. Frederick Rickey and Amy Shell-Gellasch


Mathematics is the study which forms the foundation of the course [of study at the United States Military Academy]. This is necessary, both to impart to the mind that combined strength and versatility, that peculiar vigor and rapidity of comparison necessary for military action, and to pave the way for progress in the higher military sciences. All experience shows that the mind, in order that it may act with efficiency, must be accustomed to exertion. It should be taught gradually to develop its own powers, and as it slowly learns their capacity and the manner of employing them, the increasing lights which are thrown upon its course will enable it to go on for an unlimited extent in the path of improvement.

- Committee on Military Affairs, US Military Academy, May 17, 1834 [1]

As the first engineering school in the United States, the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point had a uniquely technical curriculum for its time. The first two years of the curriculum was dominated by mathematics. The first superintendent of the Academy, Jonathan Williams, was aware of the superiority of French mathematics, engineering, and military science textbooks. However, because he was unable to procure enough books to supply the cadets, and because they could not read French, the first mathematics textbook used was Charles Hutton's A Course in Mathematics. When Sylvanus Thayer became superintendent in 1817, he began to wean the cadets and faculty away from Hutton, and French language mathematics texts began to be used, including Lacroix's Algebra, Legendre's Geometry and Boucharlet's Calculus. Soon the entire first year curriculum consisted of mathematics in the mornings and French in the afternoons (in part so that the cadets could read their mathematics). All agreed that this was the kind of education that engineers needed, especially military engineers.

West Point influenced the young nation in many ways. The infrastructure of the nation (roads, railroads, bridges) were designed and constructed by the Corps of Engineers, trained at West Point. The Academy also had a profound influence on education. Many of its faculty went on to instruct at, and even head, many colleges and schools across the land. A third manner in which the Academy influenced education was through textbooks. A few years after Charles Davies became professor of mathematics in 1823, he began publishing mathematics textbooks in English. These began as translations, but in later editions the names of the original authors disappeared from the books. By mid century, Davies was the most popular author of upper-level mathematics textbooks in the United States, and there were colleges where his were the only mathematics textbooks used. Davies was succeeded in 1837 by Professor Albert E. Church, who also wrote a series of textbooks. These texts were not so widely used across the country, but they dominated the mathematics curriculum at West Point for the remainder of the century. These texts, as well as the men who wrote and used them, helped lay the ground-work for technical education in the United States.

[1] Annual Report of the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, Washington, 1896, p. 47.


Editor's note: This article was published in May of 2008.

V. Frederick Rickey and Amy Shell-Gellasch, "Mathematics Education at West Point: The First Hundred Years - Introduction," Convergence (July 2010)