A 19th-century math discussion board

To conclude my first JMM, I stopped by the AMS Special Session on History of Mathematics to hear a talk on “A New Resource for the History of Mathematics: The Educational Times Online Database of Mathematical Questions and Answers.” 

A page from an old issue of The Educational Times, showing a column of math questions.

A sampling of math questions posed in The Educational Times.

Published continuously from 1847 to 1923, The Educational Times journal served as a discussion forum for teachers throughout the United Kingdom. Readers played an active role in the math section. Each issue contained reader-submitted math questions and reader-submitted solutions to previous questions. From time to time, an issue would include a list of questions that had been submitted but not yet solved. In total, around 18,000 math problems graced the pages of The Educational Times. 

In their talk, Sloan Despeaux of Western Carolina University and Robert Manzo of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill described how they and collaborators created a searchable online database of the questions posed in The Educational Times and the related Mathematical Questions. Questions are indexed by the branch of math, and the database contains information on the gender, nationality, occupation, and educational background of the contributors. 

The first effort to catalog the questions in The Educational Times dates to the 1950s, when a Brown University professor and his students indexed many problems and solutions on paper notecards. In the 1970s, a Providence College professor unearthed those notecards and revived the project in digital form. Despeaux had the idea to create the full online catalog, an endeavor that her team began in 2016 and finished last year. 

Despeaux’s team designed the database to serve as a resource for historians of mathematics to gain insight into the development of math as a discipline. The questions and answers reveal which mathematicians were interested in which topics and hint at the networks between them. Well-known British mathematicians like James Joseph Sylvester, Arthur Cayley, and William Kingdon Clifford contributed prolifically to the questions and answers, but so did a multitude of math enthusiasts. 

More than 1,300 distinct authors contributed questions to The Educational Times. With this new database, historians of math surely have a host of untold stories to explore.

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