Dr Benjamin Wardhaugh

  • History of mathematics
  • Early modern British history
  • History of education

I have wide-ranging interests in the history of mathematics and its applications, the history of mathematics education, and the history of numeracy and the mathematics of everyday life. With an intellectual background in mathematics (BA, Cambridge, 2000) and music (MMus, GSMD, 2002) I have always been keen to develop ideas and research projects that cross disciplinary boundaries and to begin and sustain conversations between scholars from different fields.

For my doctoral project (Oxford, 2006) I looked at mathematical theories of music in early modern Britain: theories of pitch and tuning and their relationship to natural philosophical ideas about sound and hearing in the same period. Since completing that project I have published several critical editions of sources in the same field, including writings by René Descartes and Isaac Newton that bear on the nature of sound and its mathematical description. I maintain an interest in this area, and have participated in research projects and given papers on various topics in the early modern study of sound and music.

My post-doctoral work, done at All Souls College, Oxford, focussed on popular and everyday mathematics in Georgian Britain. I explored sources including almanacs, textbooks, school curricula and newsprint for evidence of how mathematical skills were acquired and disseminated, and how mathematics was used and viewed by people whose main fields of interest and expertise lay elsewhere. This research led to a number of publications including my book Poor Robin’s Prophecies (OUP, 2012). The long-term processes of change in this area – how populations acquire or lose numerate skills – remains one of my main interests, and has motivated my subsequent work. Smaller ‘spin-off’ projects have included a study of the mathematics of the natural historian and ‘virtuoso’ Francis Willoughby and an ongoing investigation of marginalia and annotations in early modern mathematical books. The latter has produced two papers on the consumption of mathematical books and the nature(s) of mathematical reading in the period.

More recently I have received AHRC funding for two separate projects. First, a biographical study of the mathematician and educator Charles Hutton (1737–1823). A celebrity in his day, Hutton is now mainly remembered as the enemy of Sir Joseph Banks, whose dismissal from a secretarial role at the Royal Society provoked a row that nearly unseated Banks as President of the Society. But he was also a mathematical editor, compiler, author and patron of exceptional range, as well as a talented experimental natural philosopher and – for perhaps thirty years – the leading voice speaking for mathematics in English. My biography of Hutton will be published in 2017.

Finally and currently, I am the Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project ‘Reading Euclid in Early Modern Britain’. Together with Philip Beeley and Yelda Nasifoglu I am investigating the dissemination of the Euclidean Elements of geometry in Britain from the early sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. The Elements was a culturally pervasive text, studied at grammar schools and universities, drawn on by practical manuals and alluded to by literary authors. Ours will be the first study to consider in detail the history of its early modern publication, dissemination and use, using both printed and manuscript evidence from around Britain.

Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A curious almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain (OUP, 2012)

Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A curious almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain

Author, astrologer, journalist, satirist, and ‘well-willer to the mathematics’, Poor Robin of Saffron Walden was a fantastic, yet invented, figure of British popular culture from the Restoration to the end of the Georgian period. Poor Robin's Almanac first appeared in 1662, developing an enthusiastic following and long outliving its original creator to last until 1828.

Benjamin Wardhaugh tells the great story of Georgian popular mathematics – through Poor Robin’s remarkable life, from his humble beginnings as an almanac-writer through to best-selling stardom, controversy, and decline. Using the character, wit, and columns of Poor Robin, Wardhaugh explores the mathematics of ordinary people, from learning sums to using mathematics in weighing and measuring, in business, agriculture, map-making, and navigation.

This is a history of mathematics that is rarely thought about – creative, popular, and led by practical and social needs. It is centred on the ordinary people that used it. Their names remain little-known; their solutions have vanished along with the situations that required them; but their energy and ideas – as captured by Poor Robin – create a wonderfully rich picture of what mathematics can be, and has been.

 

Endorsement

‘Bring back the almanac! Wardhaugh's fascinating account of Poor Robin's Almanac persuasively reveals the power of the almanac to give mathematics a human face.’ Marcus du Sautoy

Reviews

‘an inspired thesis …. While the likes of Poor Robin and his pamphlets may have disappeared long ago, mathematics remains a bedrock of our society. This wonderful book goes a long way in highlighting why.’ Jamie Condliffe, NewScientist

‘delightfully chatty and informative … [an] excellent, lively study.’ Patricia Fara, Literary Review

‘Excellent …. A book on the history of mathematics could have ended up dry and exclusive, yet Wardhaugh has written an engaging and entertaining book that never loses its audience.’ Steve Toase, Fortean Times

  • Charles Hutton & the 'Dissensions' of 1783-84: Scientific networking & its failures

  • Charles Hutton: ‘One of the greatest mathematicians in Europe’?

  • Willughby's mathematics

  • Filling a Gap in the History of : An Exciting Discovery

  • A 'lost' chapter in the calculation of pi: Baron Zach and MS Bodleian 949

  • Consuming mathematics: John Ward's Young Mathematician's Guide (1707) and its owners

  • John Wallis: Writings on Music

  • The Compendium Musicae of Rene Descartes

  • Printing mathematics in the early modern world Research symposium

  • Thomas Salmon: A proposal to perform musick and related writings, 1685-1706

  • More

Current DPhil Students

  • Kevin Baker

I would like to hear from potential DPhil students regarding any area in the history of mathematics or early modern history of science.


 

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