Review Article: Jack Williams, Robert Recorde. Tudor Polymath, Expositor and Practitioner of Computation (Springer, 2011)

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This issue in the History of Computing series, published by Springer under the editorship of Martin Campbell-Kelly, gives a beautiful insight into the life and works of Robert Recorde, a sixteenth century Welsh mathematician, pioneer in computing techniques, and also a practicing physician, his main and stable source of income. Recorde can be considered one of the many victims of the notorious `great men syndrome', or the almost exclusive focus on (a couple of) pivotal contributors to the history of science. As is suggested by John V. Tucker in his excellent introduction, in Recorde's case, this is probably due at least in part to a relative neglect of practical as opposed to pure mathematics, Recorde having been a staunch promoter of the former. More particularly, in the context of rising economic activity, which he moreover actively participated to (see part one), Recorde's main concern as a mathematician was computing or the quantitative manipulation of data. The volume is organized in three parts, dealing with Recorde's biography, research and legacy respectively. As already indicated, the approach springing from his writings (examined in part two), is that human knowledge has both an intrinsic and practical value, something he very much lived up to himself, involving in mercantile activities such as the minting of money and the mining of silver. Part one, ``A Chronology'', in a number of episodes documents his business adventures and their rather unfortunate outcome, conflict with the Crown and/or business partners leading him to bankruptcy, imprisonment and eventual death (after having become sick in his cell). Part two, ``Intrinsic Worth'', focuses on the importance of Recorde's mainly expository intellectual work. Recorde found the teaching of mathematics in the England of his time in a deplorable, indeed retarded state when compared to continental Europe. This was especially so when it came to practical arithmetic, which he valued a lot, and on which (next to one on medicine) he wrote no less than four books, all of which are scrutinized here by Williams. In The Grounde of Artes, published around 1543, Recorde dealt with the foundations of arithmetic, while actively promoting a switch from the use of Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic ones. The Pathway to Knowledge followed in early 1552. It was the first introduction to Euclidean geometry in English, presenting its subject from an explicitly practical point of view (and apparently containing a considerable amount of mathematical errors). The Castle of Knowledge, in its turn, appeared in 1556, provided a broad introduction to astronomy. It consisted of four thematic treatises, again touching upon many practical issues ranging from the manufacture of scientific instruments to climate or calendrics. Not surprisingly, it contained many supportive calculations, and also assessed (but not embraced) Copernicus' alternative to the dominant, yet criticized Ptolemaic cosmological model. Finally, in The Whetstone of Witte, dating from 1557, Recorde revisited algebra, treating roots and surds, and introducing the equality sign in the course. Part two ends with two interesting, complementary chapters on Recorde's activities as a book collector and linguistic innovator, and on the reception of his writings by his patron/publisher Reyner Wolfe and the audience. In closing, part three, ``Finale'', reflects on Recorde's mark on the mathematics education of his time. The judgement is mixed. His books, especially those on arithmetic, were well distributed and adopted, and thus in many ways helped to close the gap with the continent. However, his views about the intrinsic quality of knowledge remained too implicit in order for them to exert a lasting influence.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMathematical Reviews
Issue number2012j:01027
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • history o mathematics


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