The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 01 Dec 2007

19th-century elementary arithmetic
In grade school I read a delightful story, by C. A. Stephens, called The Jonah. In the story, which takes place in 1867, Grandma and Grandpa are away for the weekend, leaving the kids alone on the farm. The girls make fried pies for lunch.

They have a tradition that one or two of the pies are "Jonahs": they look the same on the outside, but instead of being filled with fruit, they are filled with something you don't want to eat, in this case a mixture of bran and cayenne pepper. If you get the Jonah pie, you must either eat the whole thing, or crawl under the table to be a footstool for the rest of the meal.

Just as they are about to serve, a stranger knocks at the door. He is an old friend of Grandpa's. They invite him to lunch, of course removing the Jonahs from the platter. But he insists that they be put back, and he gets the Jonah, and crawls under the table, marching it around the dining room on his back. The ice is broken, and the rest of the afternoon is filled with laughter and stories.

Later on, when the grandparents return, the kids learn that the elderly visitor was none other than Hannibal Hamlin, formerly Vice-President of the United States.

A few years ago I tried to track this down, and thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, I was successful. Then this month I had the library get me some other C. A. Stephens stories, and they were equally delightful and amusing.

In one of these, the narrator leaves the pump full of water overnight, and the pipe freezes solid. He then has to carry water for forty head of cattle, in buckets from the kitchen, in sub-freezing weather. He does eventually manage to thaw the pipe. But why did he forget in the first place? Because of fractions:

I had been in a kind of haze all day over two hard examples in complex fractions at school. One of them I still remember distinctly:

$${7\over8} \; {\rm of} \; {60 {5\over10} \over 10 {3\over8}} \; {\rm of} \; {8\over 5} \; \div \; 8{68\over 415} = {\rm What?}$$

At that point I had to stop reading and calculate the answer, and I recommend that you do the same.

I got the answer wrong, by the way. I got 25/64 or 64/25 or something of the sort, which suggests that I flipped over an 8/5 somewhere, because the correct answer is exactly 1. At first I hoped perhaps there was some 19th-century precedence convention I was getting wrong, but no, it was nothing like that. The precedence in this problem is unambiguous. I just screwed up.

Entirely coincidentally (I was investigating the spelling of the word "canceling") I also recently downloaded (from Google Books) an arithmetic text from the same period, The National Arithmetic, on the Inductive System, by Benjamin Greenleaf, 1866. Here are a few typical examples:

  1. If 7/8 of a bushel of corn cost 63 cents, what cost a bushel? What cost 15 bushels?

  2. When 14 7/8 tons of copperas are sold for $500, what is the value of 1 ton? what is the value of 9 11/12 tons?

  3. If a man by laboring 15 hours a day, in 6 days can perform a certain piece of work, how many days would it require to do the same work by laboring 10 hours a day?

  4. Bought 87 3/7 yards of broadcloth for $612; what was the value for 14 7/10 yards?

  5. If a horse eat 19 3/7 bushels of oats in 87 3/7 days, how many will 7 horses eat in 60 days?

Some of these are rather easy, but others are a long slog. For example, #1 and #3 here (actually #1 and #25 in the book) can be solved right off, without paper. But probably very few people have enough skill at mental arithmetic to carry off $612/(83 3/7) * (14 7/10) in their heads.

The "complex fractions" section, which the original problem would have fallen under, had it been from the same book, includes problems like this: "Add 1/9, 2 5/8, 45/(94 7/11), and (47 5/9)/(314 3/5) together." Such exercises have gone out of style, I think.

In addition to the complicated mechanical examples, there is some good theory in the book. For example, pages 227–229 concern continued fraction expansions of rational numbers, as a tool for calculating simple rational approximations of rationals. Pages 417–423 concern radix-n numerals, with special attention given to the duodecimal system. A typical problem is "How many square feet in a floor 48 feet 6 inches long, and 24 feet 3 inches broad?" The remarkable thing here is that the answer is given in the form 1176 sq. feet. 1' 6'', where the 1' 6'' actually means 1/12 + 6/144 square feet— that is, it is a base-12 "decimal".

I often hear people bemoaning the dumbing-down of the primary and secondary school mathematics curricula, and usually I laugh at those people, because (for example) I have read a whole stack of "College Algebra" books from the early 20th century, which deal in material that is usually taken care of in 10th and 11th grades now. But I think these 19th-century arithmetics must form some part of an argument in the other direction.

On the other hand, those same people often complain that students' time is wasted by a lot of "new math" nonsense like base-12 arithmetic, and that we should go back to the tried and true methods of the good old days. I did not have an example in mind when I wrote this paragraph, but two minutes of Google searching turned up the following excellent example:

Most forms of life develop random growths which are best pruned off. In plants they are boles and suckerwood. In humans they are warts and tumors. In the educational system they are fashionable and transient theories of education created by a variety of human called, for example, "Professor Of The Teaching Of Mathematics."

When the Russians launched Sputnik these people came to the rescue of our nation; they leapfrogged the Russians by creating and imposing on our children the "New Math."

They had heard something about digital computers using base 2 arithmetic. They didn't know why, but clearly base 10 was old fashioned and base 2 was in. So they converted a large fraction of children's arithmetic education to learning how to calculate with any base number and to switch from base to base. But why, teacher? Because that is the modern way. No one knows how many potential engineers and scientists were permanently turned away by this inanity.

Fortunately this lunacy has now petered out.

(Smart Machines, by Lawrence J. Kamm; chapter 11, "Smart Machines in Education".)

Pages 417–423 of The National Arithmetic, with their problems on the conversion from base-6 to base-11 numerals, suggest that those people may not know what they are talking about.

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