Florian Cajori: A History Of Mathematical Notations


I just noticed that over at archive.org they have Volume I of Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notations. There’s a fair chance this means nothing to you, but, Dr Cajori did a great deal of work in writing the history of mathematics in the early 20th century, and with a scope and prose style that still leaves me a bit awed. (He also wrote a history of physics; I remember reading the book, originally written in the mid-1920s, with his description of one of the mysteries of the day. With the advantage of decades on my side I knew this to be the Zeeman effect, a way that magnetic fields affect spectral lines.)

Archive.org has several of Cajori’s books, including the histories mentioned, but Mathematical Notations I like as it’s an indispensable reference. It describes, with abundant examples, the origins of all sorts of the ways we write out mathematical ideas, from numerals themselves to the choices of symbols like the + and x signs to how we got to using letters to represent quantities to something called alligation which was apparently practiced in 15th-century Venice.

Unfortunately archive.org hasn’t yet got Volume II, which includes topics like where the $ symbol for United States currency came from — Cajori had some strong opinions about this, suggesting he was tired of tracking down false leads — but it’s a book you can feel confident in leafing through to find something interesting most any time. I think his description of the way historical opinions had changed particularly fascinating, and recommend particularly Paragraph 96 (pages 64 through 68 of the book, and not one enormous block of text), describing “Fanciful hypotheses on the origins of the numeral forms”, many of them based on ideas that the symbols for numbers contain the number of vertices or strokes or some other mnemonic to how big a number is represented. Of those hypothesis formers he says, “Nor did these writers feel that they were indulging simply in pleasing pastimes or merely contributing to mathematical recreations. With perhaps only one exception, they were as convinced of the correctness of their explanations as are circle-squarers of the soundness of their quadratures”.

Dover publishing, of course, reprints the entire book on paper if you want Volumes I and II together. I admit that’s the form I have, and enjoy, since it becomes one of those books you could use to beat off an intruder if need be.

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