Math History Essay

The history of mathematics is nearly as old as humanity itself. Since antiquity, mathematics has been fundamental to advances in science, engineering, and philosophy. It has evolved from simple counting, measurement and calculation, and the systematic study of the shapes and motions of physical objects, through the application of abstraction, imagination and logic, to the broad, complex and often abstract discipline we know today.

From the notched bones of early man to the mathematical advances brought about by settled agriculture in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the revolutionary developments of ancient Greece and its Hellenistic empire, the story of mathematics is a long and impressive one.

The East carried on the baton, particularly China, India and the medieval Islamic empire, before the focus of mathematical innovation moved back to Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Then, a whole new series of revolutionary developments occurred in 17th Century and 18th Century Europe, setting the stage for the increasing complexity and abstraction of 19th Century mathematics, and finally the audacious and sometimes devastating discoveries of the 20th Century.

Follow the story as it unfolds in this series of linked sections, like the chapters of a book. Read the human stories behind the innovations, and how they made - and sometimes destroyed - the men and women who devoted their lives to... THE STORY OF MATHEMATICS.

The main Story of Mathematics is supplemented by a List of Important Mathematicians and their achievements, and by an alphabetical Glossary of Mathematical Terms. You can also make use of the search facility at the top of each page to search for individual mathematicians, theorems, developments, periods in history, etc. Some of the many resources available for further study (of both included and excluded elements) are listed in the Sources section.

History of Mathematics is a multidisciplinary subject with a strong presence in Oxford, spread across a number of departments, most notably the Mathematical Institute and the History Faculty.  The research interests of the members of the group cover mathematics, its cultures and its impacts on culture from the Renaissance right up to the twentieth century.

Core research topics include the place of mathematics in the transformation of intellectual culture during the early modern period (Philip Beeley, Yelda Nasifoglu, Benjamin Wardhaugh), the development of abstract algebra during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Christopher Hollings, Peter Neumann), and the effects of twentieth-century politics on the pursuit of mathematics (Hollings).  The group has a strong background in the mathematics of seventeenth-century Europe, with studies of, for example, the correspondence of the seventeenth-century Savilian Professor of Geometry John Wallis and of the mathematical intelligencer John Collins (Beeley). The current 'Reading Euclid' project seeks to understand the place of Euclid's Elements within early modern British culture and education (Beeley, Nasifoglu, Wardhaugh).  In recent years, members of the group have also been involved in efforts to provide the first sober assessment of the mathematical education and abilities of Ada Lovelace (Hollings, Ursula Martin) and the first biography of pit lad-turned-mathematics professor Charles Hutton (Wardhaugh).

Current students within the group are Liu Xi (history of differential geometry), Kevin Baker (the first readers of Newton’s Principia), and Johann Gaebler (the intellectual contexts for the reception of the calculus).

Others in Oxford with interests in the history of mathematics include Howard Emmens (history of group theory), Raymond Flood (Irish mathematics), Keith Hannabuss (nineteenth-century mathematics), Daniel Isaacson (the rise of modern logic, 1879–1931), Rob Iliffe (Newton and Newtonianism), Stephen Johnston (early modern practical mathematics and instruments), Matthew Landrus (Renaissance mathematics and the arts), Robin Wilson (nineteenth-century mathematics, and the history of combinatorics).

Some case studies of research carried out by members of the group may be found here, here, and here.


The group holds a semiregular departmental seminar, as well as an annual series of general lectures entitled 'What do historians of mathematics do?', held in Trinity Term.  Members of the group also organise a seminar in ‘the History of the Exact Sciences’ during Hilary Term (the programme for Hilary Term 2018 may be found here, with abstracts here) and a research workshop in early modern mathematics each December.  These events are complemented by Oxford’s wide range of activity in history of science, technology and medicine more generally.

Undergraduate study

Within the Mathematical Institute, the group offers the following undergraduate teaching:

Postgraduate study

The group welcomes applications for postgraduate study, which would be based either in the Mathematical Institute or the History Faculty, depending on the interests and background of the applicant.  Avenues for study include the MSc or MPhil in History of Science, Medicine and Technology, or a DPhil in the History of Mathematics.  Prospective applicants are encouraged to contact either Dr Christopher Hollings (Mathematical Institute) or Dr Benjamin Wardhaugh (History Faculty) to discuss options.

See also

British Society for the History of Mathematics

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