Mathematical Practice


Leonard Digges had provided the first printed depiction of the carpenter’s rule in 1556. His improved version was soon transformed in turn by the new commercial instrument trade. Humfrey Cole was the first native-born mathematical instrument maker to set up in London. He took what had been a craft tool and turned it into a fine brass device representing the extensive reach of mathematics. Neatly engraved with a multitude of scales this folding rule of 1575 could be used for measurement, surveying, map work, and the specialized calculations of quantity surveying. 17: Museum of the History of Science

In the 16th and 17th centuries mathematics was promoted and understood more as a practical set of activities than a pure and abstract discipline. Astronomy, navigation, surveying and sundialling were all considered as mathematical arts, united by common foundations in arithmetic and geometry. From the mid-16th century, English rather than Latin became the standard choice of language for newly printed mathematical texts which emphasised the practicality and accessibility of their subjects. At the same time the commercial trade of mathematical instrument making was founded in London, and there was a close relationship between publishing and manufacture.

From its origins, this tradition of mathematical practice extended to the building trades. Its focus was not the study of architectural design and proportion, but the development of accurate techniques for the measurement of stone and timber. Such quantity surveying was taught through arithmetical and geometrical rules and embodied in wood and brass rulers carrying ingenious, special-purpose scales. Mathematical practice provided upwardly mobile ‘mechanicians’ with a route to intellectual status and social elevation.

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