Happy Thanksgiving!


thanksgivingWhile you’re baking your turkey and pondering why the temperature continues to rise even after the bird comes out of the oven or thinking about how Game Theory showed that tryptophan affects trust and cooperation, you might also be wondering, “What kind of math did the folk at the first Thanksgiving study?”

The answer is…I don’t know. So I looked around at what textbooks would have been available. I couldn’t find any math texts of the Wampanoags from around 1621, and while I was enticed by a reference to “our earliest native American arithmetic, the Greenwood book of 1729” from David Smith’s History of Mathematics Vol.2, in looking further it seems that the phrase “native American” was used only in contrast to having been originally published in England, Spain, or other non-American country. So as far as the Wampanoags are concerned, I’ll admit to remaining in the dark about what specific kinds of math they would have been learning (formally or informally).

Then I looked into the Pilgrims. As they hailed from England, it seems likely that they’d be using a an English text. And for this they had few choices: there was a 1537 book entitled An Introduction for to : Lerne to Reckon with the Pen and with the Counters after the True Cast of Arsmetyke or Awgrym [that last word is Algorithm], which was a translation of a book in Latin by Luca Pacioli. Wikipedia mentions that another textbook was published in 1539, but I couldn’t find reference to the title or author (though I suppose I could add one myself).

A more likely candidate would be Arithmetick, or, The ground of arts by Robert Recorde, first published in 1543 and listed in several places (e.g. this site) as “The first really popular arithmetic in English”. The title is short for The grou[n]d of artes: teachyng the worke and practise of arithmetike, moch necessary for all states of men. After a more easyer [et] exacter sorte, then any lyke hath hytherto ben set forth: with dyuers newe additions. Here’s a woodcut from the 1543 version


and here’s the title page from the 1658 edition, with its fancy modern spelling:

recorde-title(Heh heh — I just ran that page through Adobe’s Optical Character Recognition, and it pretty much didn’t recognize a thing.)

I couldn’t track down any copies of what exactly was in the book, but this article about medicine in English texts quotes quite a bit from Recorde’s book. For example:

In 1552, Record amplified his arithmetical text with, among other material, a “second part touchyng fractions”. This new section included additional chapters on various rules of proportion, including “The Rule of Alligation”, so-called “for that by it there are divers parcels of sundry pieces, and sundry quantities alligate, bounde, or myxed togyther”.

The rule of alligation, we are told, “hath great use in composition of medicines, and also in myxtures of mettalles, and some use it hath in myxtures of wynes, but I wyshe it were lesse used therein than it is now a daies”. Despite Record’s regret about the adulteration of wine, the first problem the Master uses to exemplify his discussion of alligation in fact deals with mixing wines; the second involves a merchant mixing spices; and the remainder involve the mixing of metals. None of the examples involve medicine, although the merchant’s spices are once called “drugges”.

A third part was added in 1582 by John Mellis. Here’s a page (from Newcastle University) showing one of the pictures in the margin (possibly from that year, or possibly a later edition; I couldn’t tell for certain).

Records Arithmetic

Robert Recorde is actually better known for a later book: The Whetstone of Witte, which was published in 1557 and so is another candidate for An Original Thanksgiving Math Text.  It was called because, according to the poem on the front, “Here, if you list your wittes to whette, Moche sharpenesse therby shall you gette,” and appears (using Google books) to have been well-known enough to be referenced by Shakespeare in Act 1 Scene 2 of As You Like It (written around 1600) when Celia says, “…for always the dulness of the fool is the whetstone of the wits. How now, Witte! whither wander you?”

The Whetstone is best known for its introduction of the equal sign =, which Recorde explains below:


Which reads as

Nowbeit, for easy alteration of equations.  I will pro(?provide?) a few examples, because the extraction of their roots, may the more aptly be wrought.  And to avoid the tedious repetition of these words “is equal to”, I will set as I do often in work use a pair of parallels or Gemowe lines of one length, thus: ======, because no two things can be more equal….

So there you have it: math that some of the first Thanksgiving folk could possibly have studied.


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6 Responses to “Happy Thanksgiving!”

  1. jd2718 Says:


  2. Ξ Says:

    Yes — that makes sense! (“propound: to offer for discussion or considerations”, says Merriam-Webster). I didn’t know that word. Thanks!

  3. jd2718 Says:

    I knew “expound” and guessed “propound(e)” – I have to be careful about making up words, but apparently that would not have been such a big problem back in the day. Impound, prepound, repound. I can make them sound ‘funny’ in English. I have made some fairly embarrassing inventions in other languages…

  4. Maths: The Final Frontier » Blog Archive » Maths history: Robert Recorde’s Whetstone of Witte Says:

    […] for example this interesting article on 360, which puts the Whetstone into some historical […]

  5. Jon Ingram Says:

    I’m a big fan of the Whetstone of Witte, and have just written an article which transcribes a touch more than just the famous paragraph above —


    I thought you might find it interesting!

  6. Ξ Says:

    Thanks! I enjoyed reading your other posts as well (like The Hall of Hexagons.

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