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From the archive

50 Years Ago

History of Letter Post Communication Between the United States and Europe, 1845–1875. By George E. Hargest — On reading the title of this book two questions immediately spring to mind: why 1845 and why 1875? The answer to the first is tied up with the trade and business rivalry between the United States and Great Britain. A British steamship line (Cunards) had become so efficient that their regular fourteen-day service between Boston, Massachusetts, and Liverpool (the “Atlantic Shuttle”) had forced the American sailing packets well into second place. The British ships carried the mail, cabin passengers and “fine” freight; the Americans carried the coal. American pride was piqued and Congress was concerned about the security aspect of all the American mail to Europe being carried by British ships. In 1845 an act of Congress was passed subsidizing the United States mail packet ships, in an attempt to overcome British domination of the Atlantic service.

From Nature 3 December 1971

100 Years Ago

l’Idéal Scientifique des Mathématiciens: Dans l’Antiquité et dans les Temps Modernes. By Prof. Pierre Boutroux — The book is not a history of mathematics; it is not an account of striking discoveries, or a criticism of mathematical methods, as such. It is an attempt, in the light of our present knowledge, to trace the principal currents of thought by which professional mathematicians during different periods have been consciously or unconsciously influenced … Prof. Boutroux considers that the great innovation of the seventeenth century does not consist in the use of new methods such as the infinitesimal calculus, but rather in the development of the notion of ‘’function,’’ especially in the form of an infinite series. Few things are more interesting than the history of the mathematical term ‘’function.’’ For a long period all the functions actually considered were those expressible by power-series. Even these were discussed in what would now be called a scandalously superficial way … Fourier’s introduction of trigonometrical series and his bold application of them to physical problems gave a sort of electrical shock to the mathematical world, and the use of complex quantities was still regarded by the orthodox as a sort of juggling trick which led to correct results in a quite inscrutable way.

From Nature 1 December 1921



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