Today, the owner of an old math book talks to us.
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.
Few things delight any
historian as much as being allowed to walk through
the mirror into another life in another age. That
happened to me the other day, quite by accident.
I have an old math text, published in 1855. I
picked it up in some used bookstore. I can't
remember where. The name Legendre is stamped on its
calfskin cover. Legendre was a great French
mathematician who died long before 1855. It turns
out that the book is only loosely based on a
A New Hampshire schoolboy got the book when it was
new. He inscribed it in a flowing young hand:
"Joseph Foster, Portsmouth Academy, Sept., 1855."
Just yesterday, I spotted a second inscription,
farther in. The same person wrote it, but the
schoolboy flourish is gone. It says: "Joseph
Foster, U.S. Steamer Augusta, off Charleston, S.C.,
17 April, 1863." What a shock that was!
It meant that Foster had joined the Union Navy. He
was part of the Charleston Blockade in the Civil
War. He shipped on the Augusta, a
steam-powered, paddle-driven Union gunboat. When we
first sent steam off to war, we sent Foster with
Ten days before Foster inscribed his book the
second time, the Augusta joined
Admiral duPont's attack on Charleston. The attack
failed miserably. The Union Navy retreated into the
Bay and relieved duPont of his command.
Now Foster reaches across the years to tell me he
was there -- that he saw men die. My old text on
geometry and trigonometry was there with him. So I
reached back to look for Foster. I caught up with
him in a Portsmouth library.
He was 14 when he got his new book -- 22 during the
defeat at Charleston. He shipped on two more steam
gunboats during the War. His last boat sank while
the Navy was towing it back to New York after the
War. Only Foster saved any personal effects. All he
saved were his books and papers. He saved my
Thirty-seven years later, Rear Admiral Foster
retired. He'd gone all the way through the Spanish
American War, but no more combat. He was a supply
officer. Back in Portsmouth, he ended his life
writing histories and biographies. He died three
months before I was born. His old school is now the
It's clear from Foster's marginal notes that he
bogged down after plane geometry. Yet he carried
this book through the War, and I think I know why.
It was a young man's time out of war. It was a
moment of retreat into a clean and beautiful place.
My old book was a handhold on sanity -- in a world
that'd lost its wits.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Davies, C., Elements of Geometry and
Trigonometry. from the Works of A.M. Legendre,
Revised and Adapted to the Course of Mathematical
Instruction in the United States, New York: A.S.
Barnes & Co., 1855.
(It turns out that Davies did other textbooks using
the names of famous people. See, e.g.; Davies, C.,
Elements of Algebra: in the Basis of M. Bourdon:
Embracing Sturm's and Hormer's Theorems, and
Practical Examples. New York: A. S. Barnes
& Co. 1854.)
Gibbons, T., Warships and Naval Battles of
the Civil War. New York: W.H. Smith
Publishers, Inc., 1989.
I am most grateful to Caroline Eastman of the
Portsmouth Athenaeum, 9 Market Square, Portsmouth,
NH 03801, for her help in finding biographical
material on Joseph Foster. Kathleen Gunning and
Donna Hitchings at the UH Library located the trail
that led to the Portsmouth Athenaeum. And my thanks
to William Wallace of Houston for donating the
Davies "Bourdon's Algegra" book.
Joseph Foster was born in 1841. During the Civil
War, he shipped on three of the new Union gunboats.
They were the Augusta, a 1310-ton
sidewheel steamer; the Acacia, a
300-ton screw steamer; and the Commodore
MacDonough , a 532-ton sidewheel ferry. The
latter sank on August 23, 1865 as it was being
towed from Port Royal to New York.
Foster continued in a variety of storekeeper and
paymaster roles until he retired in 1902. He died
on May 19th, 1930.
Foster's signature as a boy in prep school
Foster's signature as a Union naval officer during
the siege of Charleston (both images from
Elements of Geometry and Trigonometry from The
Works of A. M. Legendre</>, 1855)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity
is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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