Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2098
CHARLES DAVIES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a home-grown American Mathematician. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Anyone who hears this program knows my interest in 19th-century textbooks. As a new technology of fast presses made books cheap and plenteous, a new breed of textbook writers stepped up to the plate -- ready to serve a new market of ordinary people, hungry for book-learning. So let's meet one of those writers:

Charles Davies was born in 1798, and raised in upstate New York. When he was fourteen, a recruiter for the new military school at West Point recognized his fine intelligence and offered him a place there. The War of 1812 was still going on when Davies went to West Point two years later, so he was rushed through in a year and a half, and commissioned. By the time he was eighteen, he was back at West Point teaching math.

Davies worked furiously for the next twenty years, teaching, learning, writing textbooks on everything -- math, surveying perspective. His health finally gave out, so he did what nineteenth-century American gentlemen did -- went off to Europe for a year of R&R. Then he came back to a series of academic posts. He retired at last from Columbia University when he was 67.

So, my curiosity primed, I went to the library to find other Davies books. What a trove they make! One is his 1855 book: A Mathematical Dictionary. It's literally just that. It goes from Abacist (a user of an abacus) to Zone of [a] surface of revolution.

Davies treats the cannonball stacking problemWhat lies between is as down-to-earth as it is sophisticated. Read his sections on calculus carefully and you'll end up knowing that subject. Davies thinks like a theoretician, yet he explains depth sounding, surveying, pantographs, and the topological riddle of how to most efficiently stack shot and shell on shipboard. If were to read this book cover to cover, I would reclaim much of what I knew when I finished graduate school, long ago.

Yet Davies is also quirky. We find many of his books listed in the library catalog under the authors Bourdon and Legendre. Some cataloger got suckered in by the fact that Davies used names of famous French mathematicians on his title pages. He gives the impression that these are translations, rather than new American textbooks based ever-so-loosely upon the French.

We still looked to Europe in the mid-19th century. We had yet to develop confidence in our own intellectual abilities. But Davies had all the mental horsepower needed to build a new country. He came from a large family of very high achievers. The biographical dictionary that tells about his life also lists two of his brothers. One was a state Supreme Court justice, the other a general in the Civil War who then spent the rest of his life writing about theology and cosmology.

In the end, it's all of a piece, of course. These were all practical people who knew their ends were best served by a sure grasp on the abstract underpinnings of reality.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For biographical material on Charles Davies and his brothers see: National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 111.

C. Davies and W. G. Peck, Mathematical Dictionary and Cyclopedia of Mathematical Science ... (New York A.S. Barnes & Burr, 1865/1855).

For more on Davies's books see Episodes 472, 2022, and 2095. For more on the cannonball stacking problem see Episode 1928.


From the Cyclopaedia of American Biography


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.