Now We Are Six.

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three

I was hardly me.

When I was Four,

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,

I’m as clever as clever,

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever[1].

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

Pooh Sticks E H Shepard

The Renaissance Mathematicus emerged in cyberspace on 11 June 2009 with the post Who Am I and Why Am I Here? Since then I have celebrated each anniversary with a special post for the occasion. If you click on the links in the numbers in A. A. Milne’s splendid little poem above, you will be taken to the post for the respective year. As is my wont I see such occasions as a time to reflect upon the blog and what it means to me to write it. Today I want to consider what the most important thing that writing this blog has brought me, apart from teaching me how to write at all, and that is membership of a worldwide history of science community.

When I first became interested in the history of mathematics, as a teenager, finding people with whom I could share my enthusiasm was virtually impossible, a situation that didn’t change appreciably as I grew older. This didn’t stop me from boring friends and acquaintances with, in my opinion, exciting tales of Archimedes, Isaac Newton and George Boole on all possible occasions. Finally in the 1980s, as a mature student in Germany, I became part of a small circle of lecturers, professors and fellow students who shared my interests in and enthusiasm for the histories of mathematics, science, technology and medicine, whilst at the same time serving my apprenticeship as a historian in a research project into the history of mathematical logic. In the 1990s I left the university because of health issue and lost my history of science discussion circle for many years returning to history of science isolation.

In 2002, on the occasion of my professor’s sixty-fifth birthday I returned to university circles and found history of science discussion partners, some old, some new. I also became involved in a history of astronomy group in Nürnberg. I’m still involved with the latter but it is very small and very specialised. My contract group at the university gradually dissolved. People moved away, others retired and again I found myself drifting into isolation.

Things first began to change as I entered the Internet and discovered web sites dealing with various aspects of the history of science and really took off when I began to blog myself. Over the last six years through this blog and my activities managing On Giants’ Shoulders the monthly history of science blog carnival, my presence on Twitter and in the last year as editor of the weekly #histSTM links list Whewell’s Gazette I have become a fully integrated member of a literally world spanning network of historians of science, technology, mathematics, medicine, cartography, alchemy, astrology etc. etc. Professionals and amateurs, professors and lecturers, students, postgrads and postdocs, passionate addicts like myself and people with a casual or even passing interest all are present and all are more than welcome. I can sit at my control centre, my trusty iMac, and whilst I drink my early morning tea communicate with the other members of this wonderful network in India, Australia, North and South America, Africa and all the countries of Europe. Whilst totally isolated in my small flat in Middle Franconia I am more connected to the world of #histSTM than I have ever been, in a way that I could not have begun to imagine thirty years ago.

The Internet #histSTM community is my extended family and I own all of its members more than I can ever repay. I won’t name names otherwise this will become my longest post ever but I will say thank you to each and everyone of you and I hope we will share many more anniversaries here at the Renaissance Mathematicus.

[1] A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, Methuen, 1927


Filed under Autobiographical

Creating a holy cow.

Whenever I think that the deification of Ada Lovelace can’t get anymore ridiculous somebody comes along and ups the ante. The latest idiocy was posted on Twitter by the comedian Stephen Fry (of whom I’m a big fan!). Mr Fry tweeted:

Ada Lovelace & Alan Turing for the next £20 note! Nominate here [link removed] Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. [my emphasis]

My comments will only concern Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, although the comment I have highlighted also has issues when applied to Alan Turing.

Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. Let us briefly examine the prejudice that the Countess of Lovelace, née Byron, suffered. Born into the English aristocracy she unfortunately lost her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” father at the tender age of one month. However her mother’s family were extremely wealthy, the main reason Byron who was destitute had married her, and so Ada lacked for nothing throughout her childhood. It should be also pointed out that her mother enjoyed a very high social status, despite her disastrous marriage.

She was, as a young women, tutored and mentored by the elite of the scientific community in Victorian London, including Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Mary Somerville, all of whom helped and encouraged her in her scientific studies. She married the wealthy Baron William King who was soon elevated to Earl of Lovelace and who also supported her scientific endeavours without any restrictions. Somehow I fail to see to what the term prejudice could possibly be referring. Rich, pampered and supported by the very elite of London’s scientific community doesn’t sound like prejudice to me.

It was Wheatstone who suggested that she translate the Menabrea memoire on the Analytical Engine in emulation of her mentor Mary Somerville’s translation of Laplace, a far greater and much more complex work. So there is no suggestion of the pioneer here. Somerville herself was just one of several women, albeit the greatest, who wrote works popularizing the mathematical sciences in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. So Ada was in no way a pioneer but rather following the crowd.

It might be argued that her notations to the memoire qualify her as a pioneer, however I remain firmly convinced that the notes were very much a Babbage-Lovelace co-production with Babbage providing the content and Lovelace the turns of phrase. At best she was a scientific journalist or communicator. The pioneer was Babbage. There is strong evidence to support this interpretation, which gets swept under the carpet by the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada.

I shall be writing a longer post on one central aspect of the cult’s mythologizing later in the summer so stayed tuned.


Filed under History of Computing, Myths of Science

A twelve-year flash of genius

Last week the Observer had an article celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser steam engine, James Watt and the sabbath stroll that created the industrial revolution, that manages to perpetuate a whole series of myths about the history of science and technology despite being based on genuine historical facts. The title alone made not only myself, but also numerous others, cringe for two different reasons the second of which, concerning the Industrial Revolution, I will elucidate later. First of all I shall analyse a very crass form of the flash of genius myth that forms the central theme of the article.

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819) by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819)
by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what is the flash of genius that Robin McKie, Science Editor of The Observe, presents to us here? Let him tell us in his own words:

In 1765, Watt – then an instrument-maker based at Glasgow University – was working on a Newcomen pump, a state-of-the-art device in which steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, cooling it and causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston that sucked it back into its original position. More steam was pumped in and the piston was pushed forward again. It was a very powerful process but also a very inefficient one. Constantly heating and then cooling the engine’s huge cylinder required huge amounts of heat and coal. Steam engines like these had only limited usefulness. Then Watt set off on his walk. When he was halfway across the green, the idea of a separate condenser came into his mind. Such a device would, he realised, create a vacuum that would help suck in the engine’s piston but still allow its main cylinder to operate at a constant temperature.

What is the source for this astounding story? In fact it is to be found in Watt’s own reminiscences. Let us examine the original:

I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street – had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking about the engine at the time and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might there condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.[1]

So there we have it, a genuine example of the decried and much derided by grumpy old historians of science and technology, such as myself, flash of genius. It exists or does it? What McKie neglects to mention but which Uglow supplies in great detail is the long, complex and convoluted back-story that led up to this insight and the struggles that followed it.

In 1757, a full eight years before that Sabbath stroll, James Watt was established in Glasgow as a maker and repairer of scientific and musical instruments, a trade that he had travelled to London to learn. He had been approached by John Robinson, who had the visionary idea of carriages driven by steam-power and who wanted Watt to build him a model of one. At this point in his life Watt admits he was totally ignorant on the subject but intrigued by Robinson’s idea he plunged into a study of all he could find concerning the work of those early steam pioneers Papin, Savery, and Newcomen after his first attempt to construct a steam-engine had failed dismally. At this point in his life Watt had never actually seen a working steam engine but fate intervened. In the summer of 1757 Watt was appointed Mathematical Instrument Maker at the University of Glasgow. Over the years Watt continued his researches into steam power, which I won’t go into detail here, and in 1760 Watt’s friend Professor Anderson commissioned Watt to bring the University’s defective demonstration model Newcomen steam-engine into working order. It was the chronic inefficiency of this machine that spurred Watt into trying to develop a better more efficient steam-engine. Efforts that would finally lead to his ‘spontaneous’ revelation on that Sabbath afternoon in 1765!

What we have here is in no way a flash of genius but the end result of eight full years of hard work, a case of the solution to a problem finally appearing in “the prepared mind,” to quote Louis Pasteur.

Watt’s insight was however not really the solution to his problem but the outline of a path that would lead him to that solution. McKie hints at this with the half sentence, “Four years later, he patented the condenser…” McKie had previous informed us the Watt had very quickly made a model of his idea…

Watt's first model condenser. Science Museum London Source Wikimedia Commons

Watt’s first model condenser. Science Museum London
Source Wikimedia Commons

…but what he doesn’t tell us is that turning that model into a real functioning steam-engine turned out to be fraught with problem that would occupy all of Watt’s ingenuity for the next four years and therefor the gap between insight and patent. What seemed at first to be a moment in time that revolutionised the steam engine has now turned into twelve years of research, experimentation and very hard work. Not quite the picture that McKie presents us with in his article. In fact it would 1776 before Watt’s endeavours would finally flower in the installation of the first Boulton-Watt steam-engine almost twenty years after he first began his investigations in steam power. Not quite the instant revolution McKie seems to want to propagate.

McKie’s article contains an equally problematic myth in the second half of the sentence quoted in the previous paragraph, “…and triggered the industrial revolution”. We have now arrived at the second myth contained in the article’s title.

There is a cosy little myth much loved in Britain that the Industrial Revolution equals steam power and steam power equals James Watt therefore James Watt equals the Industrial Revolutions. In a slightly more sophisticated form this is what McKie is serving up here. In whatever form it gets served up, it is of course, viewed historically, total rubbish. I’m not going to produce a complete historical analysis of the contributory factors that formed the Industrial Revolution in a blog post but it suffices to state that they were many and varied forming a complex matrix of forces driving this revolution onwards. Watt’s improvements to the steam-engine constitute only one of those factors. In fact the Industrial Revolution was in full swing well before Boulton & Watt brought their first steam-engine onto the market. If it hadn’t been then Watt might never have found the financial and technical help that he needed to realise his ‘flash of genius’.

One central aspect of the Industrial Revolution was a radical new approach to production. Home piecework and small-scale artisanal workshops were replaced by large-scale central manufactories organised on mass production schemes. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory constructed in 1761 was one of the leaders of this movement.

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773 Source: Wikimedia Commons

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was Boulton, who required more power to drive his manufactory, who provided the finance and the engineering expertise Watt needed to finally produce his improved steam-engine. At best it can be confidently claimed that the Boulton & Watt steam-engine accelerated the progress of the Industrial Revolution; it didn’t create it as McKie claims.

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commos

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commos

Even worse, as has been pointed out by various people on the Internet and in letters replying to McKie’s article, Boulton & Watt both through their market dominance and through their skilful legal manipulation of deliberately vaguely worded patents prevented or delayed several important developments in the Industrial Revolution, functioning as a brake to progress rather than a promoter. The most famous example was Watt’s opposition to the high-pressure steam-engine, ironically necessary in order to power the steam carriages that triggered Watt’s initial interest in steam power, which almost certainly set back the introduction of the railways by several decades.

What we have here is a classical example of a journalist reducing complex historical context to over simplified journalese, thereby creating or perpetuating myths rather than transmitting useful historical information.

[1] Recounted by JW in 1817 to the Glasgow engineer Robert Hunt: Reminiscences of James Watt, Transactions of Glasgow Archaeological Society, 1859 in Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men, faber and faber, 2002, PB, p. 101


Filed under History of Technology, Myths of Science

On the trail of the Friends of Charles Darwin

This week I was on an expedition to the very edges of civilisation in the wilds of Northern England. On Tuesday I took a local stagecoach to Hebden Bridge, the fabled home of that legendary tribe, The Friends of Charles Darwin.

Hebden Bridge Stagecoach Fare Invoice

Hebden Bridge Stagecoach Fare Invoice

Upon arrival I was challenged by the irate leader of the tribe Richard the Carter,

An irate Richard the Carter

An irate Richard the Carter

who thought I was there to steal his crop of buttercups.

His buttercup crop

His buttercup crop

However I managed to placate him and convince him that my intentions were entirely peaceful. He invited me in for a cup of the strange local brew, Yorkshire Tea and we conversed intensely on a wide range on topics.

When I left he displayed his friendly side, wishing me well on my further travels.

A placated tribal leader

A placated tribal leader

It is possible to become an honorary member of this exotic British tribe just by filling out the Internet membership form.


Filed under Autobiographical

Teaching the Revolution.

Anthony Millevolte is professor for chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Colleges where he also teaches the history of science courses. When he was teaching an introductory course on the so-called Copernican or Astronomical Revolution he realised that there was no suitable modern textbook available for such a course so he decided to write one: The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion.[1] His resolve to do so was strengthened when he realised that some people wee still teaching such courses using Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution from 1957. He writes, “As well written as it is, the obviously unavoidable weakness of Kuhn’s text is that it doesn’t reflect over a half century of active scholarship in this field”[2]. Being somewhat less diplomatic than Millevolte I would add that Kuhn’s book was flawed in some aspects in 1957 and those flaws haven’t improved in the almost sixty years since.


Millevolte’s book is exactly what he set out to write an introductory textbook for college students on the developments in European astronomy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries centred on the period between Copernicus and Galileo. Having above referred to the so-called Copernican Revolution I should point out that Millevolte doesn’t believe in a revolution either, as he explains in the final chapter of the book, An Epilogue, but uses the term in his title because it “reflects a long-standing historical convention – not because it accurately summarizes a series of events that unfolded over many centuries”[3].

The first three chapters could be summarized as setting the scene, giving a quick survey of European astronomy prior to the Renaissance. Consisting of only eight-two pages they don’t offer much depth but however cover all of the salient points clearly and accurately. All the chapters of the book have excellent endnotes and these contain references to the extensive bibliography helping any reader who wishes to pursue any given topic further.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Renaissance astronomy and Copernicus and contains one of the few minor criticisms that I have of the book. In his biographical sketch of Copernicus Millevolte makes some errors only significant to a pedant like me, which however could profitably corrected in a second edition. Otherwise this like all the other chapters in the book is clearly presented and the history of science is as far as it goes correct.

In his introduction Millevolte says that in the process of writing he realised why nobody had written such an up to date textbook. He writes, “It turns out that the experts disagree on a good many of the central elements of the story – so much so that it is sometimes challenging to identify an acceptable narrative”[4]. On this point I agree with him so one should bear this in mind when considering any criticism that I might make here. Despite this problem throughout the book Millevolte had managed to produce a clear, coherent narrative suitable for beginners. On those points that are contentious he includes clearly written, extensive endnotes, which list alternative viewpoints, thus managing very successfully to have his cake and eat it, too.

Having set the astronomical revolution in motion Millevolte produces one chapter each on Tycho Brahe and Kepler and three on Galileo. Here I would complain that the balance is false as Kepler contributed far more to the astronomical revolution than Galileo. However the traditional narrative always favours Galileo over Kepler and as this is a college textbook Millevolte stays within the tradition. He does however redress the balance somewhat in the final chapter where he attributes equal weight to Kepler and Galileo in establishing heliocentricity. I still think this gives too much credit to Galileo but it is it is better than the standard mythology that gives almost all the credit to Galileo and almost none to Kepler.

In his chapters on Galileo Millevolte also tend to emphasise positive aspects of Galileo’s activities oft by simply omitting the negative. For example whilst discussing the dispute between Galileo and Orazio Grassi concerning comets, that led to Galileo writing Il Saggiatore, whilst conceding that Galileo’s attacks on Grassi were, to say the least, immoderate Millevolte neglects to mention that on the question of whether the comets were sub- or supralunar Grassi was in the right and Galileo very much in the wrong.

The same subject turns up in the discussion of the third day in the Dialogo, which is devoted amongst other things to the novas and that they were supralunar. Millevolte claims that Galileo devoted space to this theme because “there remained many Aristotelians who refused to believe the novas were located beyond the sphere of the moon”[5]. This may well have been but the Jesuit, who were without doubt the leading geocentric astronomers, had already accepted the supralunar status of the novas in the sixteenth century. Galileo is here flogging the proverbial dead horse. Again not mentioned by Millevolte, who in general fails to make the important distinction between Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic and/or Tychonic astronomy; a distinction that played a central and significant role in the gradual acceptance of heliocentricity. Geocentric astronomers were prepared to abandon Aristotelian cosmology when the evidence showed it to be wrong but not to give up geocentric astronomy without clear evidence against it and for heliocentricity.

Concerning day four of the Dialogo, Millevolte fails to mention that Galileo’s much favoured theory of the tides was in fact refuted by the empirical facts.

All of the above points whilst, in my opinion important, are for an introductory text not absolutely essential and should not be thought to lead to a negative assessment of Millevolte’s book.

The closing chapter of the book delivers a brief but very clear assessment of the further progress towards heliocentricity up to and including Isaac Newton. As already mentioned the book has an extensive bibliography and the endnotes to each chapter deal skilfully with many of the historically contentious points in the story. I personally would have welcomed an index. The book is attractively illustrated with black and white pictures and diagrams.

Taken as a whole Millevolte has fulfilled his original resolve extremely well and what we have here is a first class up to date textbook on one of the most important episodes in the history of astronomy. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to read an introductory text on the subject to inform and educate themselves and especially to anyone wishing to teach an introductory course on the subject to college students or even to the upper classes/grades of grammar schools, high schools etc. Currently priced at circa $17 US on most students should be able to afford a copy.


[1] Anthony Millevolte, The Copernican Revolution: Putting the Earth into Motion, Tuscobia Press, 2014.

[2] Millevolte, p. iv

[3] Millevolte, p. 294

[4] Millevolte, p. v

[5] Millevolte, p. 270


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, Uncategorized

History or political propaganda?

Quite a stir has been caused in the Internet by an article written by David Abulafia and published in History Today entitled Britain: apart from or a part of Europe, which to put it quite simply argues for a British exit from the EU based on the concept that Britain has a unique history that separates it from its European neighbours. Possibly the worst part of this blatant piece of political propaganda, masquerading as history, is that it is presented as a sort of manifesto for a group of historians calling themselves Historians for Britain, thereby implicitly implying that they represent the British community of historians. As a convinced European who has lived more than half his life in Germany, I hardly need to say that they don’t represent this British historian.

The last couple of days has seen some informed criticisms of this piece by Charles West at Sheffield University’s History Matters, England: Apart From or a Part of Europe? An Early Medieval Perspective, by Fiona Whelan and Kieran Hazzard at The History Vault, Historians for Britain: The Betrayal of History and Historical Practice, and by Neil Gregor at The Huffington Post, Historians, Britain and Europe. Chiming in on behalf of the historians of science my #histsci soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has written an excellent piece on her H-Word Blog at The Guardian, Beware Eurosceptic versions of history and science.


16 May: Sean Lang at The Conversation, There is no dastardly EU plot to hijack the history curriculum

17 May: Historian for History Statement May 2015

18 May: A very large number of historians at History Today: Historians Isolated, Fog in Channel

All of these save me the trouble of writing something myself, but in her article Becky reminded me that Brian Cox had written an essay for the BBC a couple of years ago claiming the same sort of exceptionalism for the history of British science entitled, The Wonder of British Science. At the time I wrote a demolition of Cox’s arguments, Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the science, which I humbly offer up as my contribution to the current debate.


Filed under Uncategorized

Ohm Sweet Ohm

This is the story of two brothers born into the working class in a small town in Germany in the late eighteenth century. Both of them were recognised as mathematically gifted whilst still teenagers and went on to study mathematics at university. The younger brother was diligent and studious and completed his doctorate in mathematics with a good grade. There followed a series of good teaching jobs before he obtained a lectureship at the then leading university of Berlin, ten years after graduating. In due course, there followed positions as associate and the full professor. As professor he contributed some small but important proofs to the maths cannon, graduated an impressive list of doctoral students and developed an interesting approach to maths textbooks. He became a respected and acknowledged member of the German mathematical community.

The elder brother’s life ran somewhat differently. He started at the local university but unlike his younger brother he was anything but studious preferring a life of dancing, ice -skating and playing billiards to learning mathematics. His father a hard working craftsman was disgusted by this behaviour and forced him to leave the university and take up a teaching post in Switzerland. On the advice of his mathematics professor he taught himself mathematics by reading the greats. He returned to his home university and obtained his doctorate in the same year as his brother. There then followed a series of dead end jobs first as a badly paid university lecturer with little prospect of promotion and then a series of deadbeat jobs as a schoolteacher. In the last of these he had access to a good physics laboratory and began a series of investigations in a relatively new area of physics. At the age of thirty-eight, something of a failure, he published the results of his investigations in a book, which initially failed to make any impact. At the age of forty-four he obtained an appointment as professor at a polytechnic near to his home town and things began to finally improve in his life. At the age of fifty-two his work received acknowledgement at the highest international levels and finally at the age of sixty-three he was appointed professor for physics at a leading university.

The younger brother whose career path had been so smooth, fairly rapidly disappeared from the history of mathematics after his death in 1872, remembered by only a handful of specialists, whereas the much plagued elder brother went on to lend the family name to one of the most frequently used unit of measure in the physical sciences; a name that can be found on multiple appliances in probably every household in the western world.

The two bothers of my story are Georg Simon Ohm (1789–1854), the discover of Ohm’s Law, and his younger brother, the mathematician, Martin Ohm, who was born on 6 May 1792 and the small German town where they were born is Erlangen where I (almost) live.

The Ohm House, Fahrstraße 11, Erlangen Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Ohm House, Fahrstraße 11, Erlangen
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Georg Simon and Martin were the sons of the locksmith Johann Wolfgang Ohm and his wife Maria Elizabeth Beck, who died when Georg Simon was only ten. Not only did the father bring up his three surviving, of seven, children alone after the death of their mother but he also educated his two sons himself. The son of a locksmith he had enjoyed little formal education but had taught himself philosophy and mathematics, which he now imparted to his sons with great success. As Georg Simon was fifteen he and Martin were examined by the local professor of mathematics, Karl Christian von Langsdorf, who, as already described above, found both boys to be highly gifted and spoke of an Erlanger Bernoulli family.

Plaque on the Ohm House

Plaque on the Ohm House

The plaque reads: The locksmith Johann Wolfgang Ohm (1753–1823) brought up and taught in this house as a true master his later famous sons

Georg Simon Ohm (1789–1854) the great physicist and Martin Ohm (1792–1872) the mathematician

I’ve already outlined the lives of the two Ohm brothers so I’m not going to repeat myself but I will fill in some detail.

Martin Ohm Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Ohm
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As above I’ll start with Martin, the mathematician. He made no great discoveries as such and in the world of mathematics his main claim to fame is probably his list of doctoral students several of whom became much more famous than their professor. It was as a teacher that Martin Ohm made his mark, writing a nine volume work that attempted a systematic introduction to the whole of elementary mathematics his, Versuch eines vollkommenen, consequenten Systems der Mathematik (1822–1852) (Attempt at a complete consequent system of mathematics); a book that predates the very similar, but far better known, attempt by Bourbaki by one hundred years and which deserves far more attention than it gets. Martin Ohm also wrote several other elementary textbooks for his students. In his time in Berlin Martin Ohm also taught mathematics for many years at both the School for Architecture and the Artillery Academy.

I first stumbled across Martin Ohm whilst researching nineteenth-century algebraic logics. When it was first published George Boole’s Laws of Thought (1864) received very little attention from the mathematical community. With the exception of a small handful of relatively unknown mathematicians who wrote brief papers on it, it went largely unnoticed. One of that handful was Martin Ohm who wrote two papers in German (the first works in German on Boole’s logic). Thus introducing Boole’s ground-breaking work to the German mathematical public. Boole had written and published other mathematical work in German so he was already known in Germany. Later Ernst Schröder would go on to become the biggest proponent of Boolean logic with his three volume Vorlesungen über die Algebra der Logik (1890-1905). It is perhaps worth noting that Boole like the Ohm brothers was the son of a self-educated tradesman who gave his son his first education.

Martin Ohm has one further claim to notoriety; he is thought to have been the first to use the term “golden section” (goldener Schnitt in German) thus opening the door for hundreds of aesthetic loonies who claim to find evidence of this wonderful ration all over the place.  

Georg Simon Ohm

Georg Simon Ohm

We now move on to the man in whose shadow Martin Ohm will always stand, his elder brother Georg Simon.

House in Erlangen just around the corner from their birth house, where both Georg Simon and Martin worked as poorly paid lecturers for physics Photo: Thony Christie

House in Erlangen just around the corner from their birth house, where both Georg Simon and Martin worked as poorly paid lecturers for physics
Photo: Thony Christie

Plaque on house Photo: Thony Christie

Plaque on house
Photo: Thony Christie

The Plaque reads: In this house the physicist Georg Simon Ohm (1789–1854) taught physics in the years 1811 to 1812 and the mathematician Martin Ohm (1792–1872) in the years 1812 to 1817

The school where Georg Simon began the research work into the physics of electricity was the Jesuit Gymnasium in Cologne, which even granted him a sabbatical in 1826 to intensify his researches. He published those researches as Die galvanische Kette, mathematisch bearbeitet (The Galvanic Circuit Investigated Mathematically) in 1827. It was the Royal Society who started his climb out of obscurity awarding him the Copley Medal, its highest award, in 1842 and appointing him a foreign member in the same year. Membership of other international scientific societies, such as Turin followed. Georg Simon’s first professorial post was at the Königlich Polytechnische Schule (Royal Polytechnic) in Nürnberg in 1833. He became the director of the Polytechnic in 1839 and today the school is a technical university, which bears the name Georg Simon Ohm. Georg Simon ended his career as professor of physics at the University of Munich.

The town of Erlangen is proud of Georg Simon and we have an Ohm Place, with an unfortunately rather derelict fountain, the subject of a long political debate concerning the cost of renovation and one of the town’s high schools is named the Ohm Gymnasium. The city of Munich also has a collection of plaques and statues honouring him. Ohm Straße in Berlin, however, is named after his brother Martin.

Statue of Georg Simon Ohm at the Technical University in Munich Source: Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Georg Simon Ohm at the Technical University in Munich
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Any fans of the history of science with a sweet tooth should note that if they come to Erlangen one half of the Ohm House is now a sweet shop specialising in Gummibärs.


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of Physics, Local Heroes, University History