9. History of Science, Mathematics, Technology
Cuneiform Tablet. Larsa (Tell Senkereh), Iraq, ca. 1820-1762 BCE. RBML, Plimpton Cuneiform 322
"Plimpton 322" is known throughout the world to those interested in the
history of mathematics as a result of the interest that Otto Neugebauer, chair
of Brown University's History of Mathematics Department, took in the tablet. In
the early 1940s, he and his assistant Abraham Sachs interpreted it as containing
what is known in mathematics as Pythagorean triples, integer solutions of the
equation a2 + b2 = c2, a thousand years before
the age of Pythagoras.
Recently, Dr. Eleanor Robson, an authority on Mesopotamian mathematics at
the University of Cambridge, has made the case for a more mundane solution,
arguing that the tablet was created as a teacher's aid, designed for generating
problems involving right triangles and reciprocal pairs. Mr. Plimpton, who
collected "our tools of learning" on a broad scale, would have been delighted
with this interpretation, showing the work of an excellent teacher, not a lone
genius a thousand years ahead of his time.
Gift of George Arthur Plimpton, 1936
Omar Khayyam (1048-1122 CE).
Maqalah fi al-jabr wa-al muqabalah. Manuscript on paper, 56 leaves. Lahore, India, 13th century. RBML, Smith Oriental MS 45
Best known in the west as the poet who wrote the Ruba 'iyat, Omar
Khayyam was also one of the leading mathematicians of the Islamic world. This
manuscript of his "Algebra," written in standard Arabic scientific characters,
was probably copied from an earlier manuscript; the work begins with basic
definitions and makes its principal contribution in the field of cubic
equations. Although the "Algebra" was unknown to western mathematicians until
the eighteenth century, Omar received wide recognition for it in the Islamic
world. He was called to the court of Sultan Malik Shah I (1054-1092), where he
revised astronomical tables and introduced a highly accurate calendar. Among the
other fourteen works bound in this volume are two by Sharaf al-Din al Tusi (d.
ca. 1213/1214), one on the height of vertical objects and the other on the
height of the North Pole, and treatises by Alhazen (965-1039) on the astrolabe,
and by al-Farabi (ca. 870-950) on music.
Gift of David Eugene Smith, 1931
Arte dell'Abbaco. Treviso: [Gerardus de Lisa de Flandria or Michele Manzolo], 1478. RBML
This unpretentious little book could almost be taken as a symbol of the
third component in the collection of George A. Plimpton: "reading, writing and
rithmetic." It intends to teach commercial arithmetic, starting from the most
elementary level to explain numbers and their positions as designators of units,
tens, hundreds, and so forth. On the opening displayed a reader has noted the
method for calculating differences in income for those who invest varying
amounts of money at different times. Graphically clear are the various earnings
of Piero, Polo and Zuanne. Their names, and indeed the entire text, are in the
local vernacular: Venetian dialect, not Italian. Abbacus, or commercial
arithmetic, was solidly vernacular, Latin being reserved for the abstract
studies of the universities.
Bequest of George Arthur Plimpton, 1936
Georg Agricola (1494-1555).
De re metallica. Basel: 1556. RBML
Georg Bauer, better known as Agricola, spent most of his adult life as a
physician in the mining region of Joachimsthal in Bohemia. There he observed
first-hand every aspect of mines, mining, and minerals. His subjects include,
among other things, administration, prospecting, equipment, diseases of the
lung, ventilation, ore transportation, soil erosion, and descriptions of eighty
different minerals and metallic ore. The book contains 273 splendid woodcuts by
Rudolf Manuel Deutsch.
Bequest of Daniel E. Moran, 1939
Astrolabe. Italy, signed by Bernard Sabeus, 1558. RBML, Smith Instruments
This western astrolabe was made by Bernard Sabeus or Zabeus, who worked in
Padua during the years 1552-59. It came to Columbia with the mathematical
instruments and books collected by David Eugene Smith. Smith was professor of
mathematics at Teachers College from 1901 until his death in 1944, serving as
Teachers College librarian from 1902 until 1920. When he began giving his
collection to the Columbia University Libraries in 1931, it included 12,000
printed books on the history of mathematics, ranging from the 15th through the
20th century. It also included 35 boxes of historical documents relating to
mathematics; 140 boxes of his own professional papers; 350 volumes of western
European manuscripts dating from the 15th to the early
20th century; 670 volumes of Oriental (primarily Arabic and Persian)
manuscripts dating from the 8th to the early 20th century;
88 volumes of Chinese and 363 volumes of Japanese block-print books; 3,000
prints portraits of mathematicians; and some 300 mathematical instruments and
Gift of David Eugene Smith, 1931
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).
Sidereus nuncius. Venice: 1610. RBML, Smith Collection
This thin pamphlet entitled "The Starry Messenger" contains the first
publications of modern observational astronomy, and some of the most important
discoveries to be found in scientific literature. Galileo was the first
astronomer to make full use of the telescope, learning of its invention in the
summer of 1609. He constructed his own, eventually perfecting it to a
magnification of 30 diameters, and began a series of astronomical observations.
He observed the craters of the moon, saw the vast number of stars in the
constellations and Milky Way, and discovered four new "planets," the satellites
of Jupiter. He also declared himself to be a Copernican, and while none of his
work proved that Copernicus's theory of the universe was right, it proved beyond
doubt that the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic world-view was wrong.
Gift of David Eugene Smith, 1931
Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
The Three Mysterious Fires: Commentary on Monte -Snyder's Tractatus de
Medicina Universali. Autograph manuscript, 3 pp., after 1678. RBML, Smith Historical Manuscripts
In addition to his many renowned contributions to mathematics, physics and
astronomy, such as the discovery of the law of universal gravitation, the
invention of calculus, the construction of the first reflecting telescope, and
the first analysis of white light, Sir Isaac Newton devoted many years of his
life to chemistry, alchemy and metallurgy. For 250 years after his death, his
manuscripts and books lay in a large chest into which he placed them in 1696
when he became Master of the Mint. They remained untouched until 1872 when
Newton's heirs donated his papers to Cambridge University. After the University
Library accessioned those items of scientific interest, they returned to the
family all personal items, including the alchemical manuscripts. In 1936 these
"personal papers" were dispersed at auction. This manuscript, a commentary on
Johann de Monte-Snyder's Tractatus de medicina universali (1678),
testifies to the depth to which Newton pursued studies in alchemy.
Gift of the Friends of the Columbia Libraries
Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) and Giovanni Cassini (1677-1756).
Planisphere terrestre ou sont marquees longitudes de divers lieux de la terre. Paris: Jean Baptiste Nolin, 1696. RBML, Historic Map Collection
This is the first map constructed using scientific data. Under Giovanni
Domenicis Cassini's direction, coordinates of latitude and longitude for points
throughout the world were collected by the Académie Royale des Sciences for over
thirty years. These were placed on the floor of the Paris Observatory, creating
a planisphere that was 24 feet in diameter, with the North Pole at the center.
Cassini's son Giovanni drew the much reduced version that was then engraved by Nolin.
Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Alexander O. Vietor, 1958
John James Audubon (1785-1851).
The Birds of America. London: Published by the author, 1827-1838. RBML
America's premier artist-naturalist, Audubon was born in Les Cayes, Santo
Domingo, and spent his boyhood in France. At the age of eighteen he came to the
United States to enter business but spent an increasing amount of time pursuing
his childhood interest in drawing birds. By 1820 he was already devoting his
efforts to what would eventually become The Birds of America, which would
illustrate all the then-known birds of North America. In 1826 he left America in
search of a publisher for the material he had already produced; his genius was
immediately recognized in Great Britain, both by artists and scientists, and
publication began. Over the next decade work continued, Audubon receiving
assistance from his sons Victor and John and from William MacGillivray who
collaborated with Audubon on the text which appeared in a five volume work,
Ornithological Biography (1831-1839), published in Edinburgh.
Columbia was one of only three United States colleges or universities
(along with Harvard and the other Columbia College, now the University of South
Carolina) to become original subscribers to the "Double-Elephant" folio edition.
It was published in less than two hundred sets with 435 hand-colored aquatints,
principally the work of Robert Havell, Jr. The entry for "Columbia College State
of N.Y." appears in Audubon's Ledger "B," dated May, 1833. Audubon had visited
the college, then located at Park Place, and had shown his drawings to a
gathering in the rooms of Columbia's president, the Rev. William Alexander Duer.
A subscription of $800 was raised, and Ledger "B" records that the set was
"Completed Nov. 10, 1838-(Bound)."
Purchased from John J. Audubon by subscription, 1833
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851).
Historique et description des procédés du daguerréotype et du diorama. Paris: Susse frères, 1839. RBML, Epstean Collection
Edward Epstean (1868-1945) began collecting books about the history and
science of photography in order to aid his own work, beginning in 1892, as a
pioneering photo-engraver. His collection was also focused on the applications
of photography to the graphic arts, and is an important, though not widely
known, addition to the rich holdings of the RBML pertaining to the art and
technique of printing.
Gift of Edward Epstean, 1934
Robert Stephenson and Company, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
"America". Watercolor drawing, signed with perforated initials "F.S.K.," 1828? RBML, Parsons Railroad Prints R5
William Barclay Parsons (CC 1879, Mines 1882) is best remembered as the
chief engineer for the Rapid Transit System of New York, opened in 1904.
However, he was also a great collector of books and prints. After his death, his
family presented his book collection to The New York Public Library, but his
collection of some 235 transportation prints came to Columbia. The collection
includes prints dating from 1820 to 1880, covering primarily railroad
transportation in Europe and the United States.
General Parsons purchased this watercolor of the legendary locomotive,
originally named the "Pride of Newcastle," at the American Art Association sale
(December 18, 1930) of the collection of Cornelius Michaelsen, who had purchased
it in London. "America" was built by the firm of Robert Stephenson and Company,
and was similar to the firm's "Rocket" built for the Liverpool &
Manchester Railway that won the Rainhill locomotive trails in 1829. The fate of
the "America" remains a mystery. It may have exploded on July 26, 1829 during
its maiden run near Honesdale, Pennsylvania. If so, it would have been the first
commercial steam locomotive to run in the United States. Its sister locomotive,
the "Stourbridge Lion," made its first run successfully on August 8, 1829.
Gift of Mrs. William Barclay Parsons and Family, 1934
Portrait of John Watson Webb. Daguerreotype, (33.3 x 27.9 cm., plate); (27.9 x 22.9 cm., image, oval), 1850s. Office of Art Properties, Chandler Chemical Museum Collection
The Chandler Chemical Museum was established by Professor Charles F.
Chandler in order to illustrate the things he discussed in his many lectures. He
began to collect material for the museum almost immediately on his arrival at
Columbia in the 1860s. For half a century, he bought rare and interesting
exhibits of chemicals and of products of various chemical industries. Many times
these were paid for out of his own pocket, and other materials were donated by
the chemical industries. First located in Columbia's campus on 49th
Street, the museum was eventually moved to the East End of Havemeyer Hall when
the university was relocated to Morningside Heights. When the museum was
dismantled in 1987, some of its collections were transferred to Art Properties.
Chandler's papers are located in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Daguerreotypes of this size, called mammoth plates, are rare. They were
evidently difficult to make, and few are known to exist. John Watson Webb
(1802-1884) was a journalist and diplomat. After an early career in the army, in
1827 he settled in New York City, where he became an editor and the owner of a
number of newspapers. From 1861 to 1869, he was minister to Brazil.
Michael Idvorsky Pupin (1858-1935).
X-ray photograph of lead shot in hand. Photograph, 1896. RBML, Michael Idvorsky Pupin Papers
Michael Idvorsky Pupin received his Columbia College undergraduate degree
in 1883 and his PhD at the University of Berlin in 1889, returning to teach at
Columbia in 1892. The subject of electrical resonance engaged his attention
between 1892 and 1895, and resulted in the electrical tuning which was
universally applied in all radio work. In February of 1896, following Wilhelm
Roentgen's November 1895 discovery of "new kind of rays," he discovered a rapid
method of X-ray photography that used a fluorescent screen between the object to
the photographed and the photographic plate. This shortened the exposure time
from about an hour to a few seconds, and is the method now in universal use.
In April of that year he discovered that matter struck by X-rays is
stimulated to radiate other X-rays (secondary radiation), and invented an
electrical resonator. Pupin received 34 patents for his inventions, and won the
Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for his autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor.
Columbia University's holdings include architectural drawings, blueprints
and graphs, photographs, portraits, awards and diplomas. This print of an x-ray
photograph, showing lead shot in a human hand, was probably taken in February,
Gift of Mrs. Rose Trbovich Andrews, 1965 & 1970
Harold Miller Lewis (1893-1978).
Laboratory notebook, recording Edwin H. Armstrong's discovery of
superheterodyne reception. Autograph manuscript, 137 pp. Paris, July 21, 1918-January 8, 1919. RBML, Edwin Howard Armstrong Papers
Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890-1954) is the largely unsung electrical
engineer and inventor of three of the basic electronic circuits underlying all
modern radio, radar, and television. Upon graduating from high school, Armstrong
began to commute by motorcycle to Columbia University's school of engineering.
In the summer of 1912, while a junior at Columbia, he made his first major
invention: a new regenerative circuit in which part of the current at the plate
was fed back to the grid to strengthen incoming signals. This single circuit
yielded not only the first radio amplifier but also the key to the
continuous-wave transmitter that is still at the heart of all radio operations.
Armstrong received his engineering degree in 1913, filed for a patent, and
returned to Columbia as an instructor and as assistant to the professor and
inventor, Michael Pupin.
During World War I, Armstrong was commissioned a Captain and sent to Paris.
While working under his direction in the Paris laboratory of the U.S. Signal
Corps, Corporal Harold M. Lewis kept this notebook in which he recorded the
invention of Armstrong's superheterodyne circuit, the basis for most radio,
television and radar receivers. On August 13, 1918, Armstrong first explained to
Lewis his new short wave amplification system; the complete circuit designs and
the first working model were finished between August 14 and September 3, 1918.
Thus, Armstrong had created a circuit capable of handling radio signals at much
higher frequencies than were then possible. Lewis went on to a career in radio
engineering and patented nearly sixty inventions of his own. Upon the success of
early radio broadcasting after the war, Armstrong became a millionaire, but
continued at Columbia University as a professor and eventual successor to Pupin.
In 1941 he was given the highest honor in U.S. science, the Franklin Medal.
In 1933, Armstrong brought forth a wide-band frequency modulation (FM)
system that in field tests gave clear reception through the most violent storms
and, as a dividend, offered the highest fidelity sound yet heard in radio. But
in the depressed 1930s the major radio industry was in no mood to take on a new
system requiring basic changes in both transmitters and receivers. Armstrong
found himself blocked on almost every side. It took him until 1940 to get a
permit for the first FM station, erected at his own expense, on the Hudson River
Palisades at Alpine, N.J. It would be another two years before the Federal
Communications Commission granted him a few frequency allocations. Armstrong
spent the rest of his life fighting infringements on his patents. Drained of
resources and exhausted, Armstrong committed suicide on January 31, 1954. His
estate eventually won $10,000,000 from multiple corporations in patent
infringement actions. The Armstrong Papers were given to Columbia in 1977 by the
Armstrong Memorial Research Foundation.
Gift of Keith E. Mullinger of Pennie & Edmonds, Patent attorneys for
Academic cap worn by Marie Curie while receiving honors at American
colleges and universities, 1921. RBML, Meloney-Curie Papers
Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934).
Impressions of America. Autograph manuscript, 11 leaves, 1921. RBML, Meloney-Curie Papers
The American editor and journalist Marie Mattingly Meloney first met Madame
Curie in May 1920 when she went to interview her at the Radium Institute of the
Sorbonne. When Mrs. Meloney learned that the scientist had no radium with which
to carry on her experiments, she founded the Marie Curie Radium Fund and raised
over $100,000 from private donations for the purchase of one gram of the
precious element. Curie's visit to the United States was arranged by Mrs.
Meloney for May and June of 1921 so that the scientist could personally receive
the radium from President Harding at a White House reception. During her stay,
Curie attended dinners and receptions in her honor and visited colleges and
universities, as well as such tourist attractions as the Grand Canyon and
Niagara Falls. A few days after her return to France, she sent this manuscript
of her account of the visit to Mrs. Meloney for publication in The Delineator.
Gift of William B. Meloney, Jr., in memory of Marie Mattingly Meloney, 1956
Delano & Aldrich.
Marine Terminal, LaGuardia Airport. Pencil on tracing paper, (50.8 x 36.2 cm.), 1943. Avery Library, Drawings and Archives, Delano & Aldrich Collection
With their society connections, Delano and Aldrich were widely known as
architects of urban clubs, such as Manhattan's Union, Knickerbocker, and Colony
Clubs, and country estates, including the Charles Lindbergh and Otto Kahn
residences. They worked extensively at Yale University, Delano's alma mater.
Delano and Aldrich were also responsible for a large-scale renovation of the
White House under Harry Truman. At the end of their career, they designed
airfields for Pan-Am in Florida, Panama, and Guam. The firm received this
commission for the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia in the late 1940s. The terminal
is still the departure gate for the Boston shuttle, and thousands of passengers
walk through this building everyday and admire the decoration.
Avery is the largest repository of drawings of the work of Delano and
Aldrich. The original gift by Delano was in 1951. The next and largest gift,
including over 6,500 drawings and 3,000 photographs, was donated by the estate
of the successor firm headed by Alexander McIlvaine. Subsequent donations of the
drawings of the Knickerbocker, Colony, and Union clubs have come into the
collection in the last several years. Delano's personal papers are at Yale University.