Cochell: The Early History of the Cornell Mathematics Department


The first professor White secured for the new university also happened to be its first mathematician, Evan Williams Evans (1827-1874).  A native of Wales, Evans had moved to Pennsylvania at the age of four.  Graduating with distinction from Yale in 1851,  he taught in various places before becoming Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at Marietta College in Ohio in 1857 .  He remained at Marietta College until 1864 when he became active in mining engineering.  Evans clearly had the kind of background that White wanted for his new Cornell faculty;  he had received traditional, "classical" schooling, yet he had also become well familiar with "practical" applications.  After White hired him to assume the leadership of the Cornell Mathematics Department, Evans spent the year traveling in Europe.  While little is known about his year in Europe or his years at the helm of the Mathematics Department at Cornell, his successor, James Edward Oliver (1829-1895), gives us this glimse of Evans:

 [he was] a man of few words, but of a remarkably sound and  independent judgment that carried great weight in the faculty  councils, and as an acute and thorough student, a philosophical  and original thinker, a firm and loyal friend . . . Characteristic  of his instruction or policy were: the remarkable power of  concentration with which he would follow others' work  without using his eyes, his uniform preference for oral above  written examinations, and his habit of taking a calculus class  over the same ground with two successive authors for the sake  of the cross-light.  [34, 140]

Evans was joined in the first year by Assistant Professor Ziba H. Potter (1836-?), an A.B. and A.M. from Hobart College in Geneva, New York .

Three more Assistant Professors were hired in the second year: William E. Arnold, Henry T. Eddy and William J. Hamilton.  Although little is known about Arnold and Hamilton ,  Eddy (1844-1921) graduated of Yale in 1867 and from its Sheffield Scientific School in 1868 with the degrees of A.B. and Ph.B., respectively [23,48].  He went on to receive both the first advanced degree (a civil engineering degree, C.E., in 1870) and the first Ph.D. (in applied mathematics in 1872) granted by Cornell.  Eddy earned these degrees on the basis of his own scholarly research, not following any formal graduate program of study at Cornell.  He left Cornell in 1873 to go on to a distinguished career in higher education.    Given Evan's interest in applied science, Eddy's emphasis on applied mathematics, and the fact that both Arnold and Hamilton had had military training, the faculty of the Cornell Mathematics Department clearly reflected the utilitarian aims of the university.   At the outset, however, its mathematics program was strictly at an undergraduate level.   In 1870 and 1871, Evans hired two new faculty members who would begin to orient the department toward work at a graduate level as well.   In 1870, Lucien Augustus Wait (1846-1913) joined the staff as an Assistant Professor, with James Edward Oliver following in the same rank in 1871 [23, 15].  An examination of the changes they brought about becomes most meaningful when compared to an analysis of the mathematics taught at Cornell in the earliest years.

The prerequisites in the first years for entrance into Cornell were minimal by today's standards, but they were consonant with those in place at other American colleges.  Only arithmetic and algebra through quadratics were required, and "some students were admitted with only arithmetic" [18, 181].  With such minimal prerequisites, what mathematics did these early Cornell students take?  In the freshman year mathematics, consisting of plane geometry, algebra and solid geometry was required of all students.  During the first part of the sophomore year, trigonometry was required, "including a little on mensuration, surveying, and navigation" [18,184].  Those in engineering or architecture also took one or two terms of analytic geometry, three terms of calculus, and one term of synthetic geometry [34, 145].   Later in the first decade at Cornell, when the entrance requirements were increased to include plane geometry, freshman mathematics changed by dropping plane geometry and adding trigonometry [34, 145].

Further indicaton of the similarity between Cornell's mathematics curriculum that in other American colleges of the time is seen in the textbooks used for these courses.  Most of the early texts used at Cornell were from the popular series authored by Elias Loomis (1811-1889) (except for synthetic geometry which Evans taught from his notes) [18,184].  The Loomis books ranged in mathematics from Elementary Arithmetic to Differential and Integral Calculus,  and also included books in natural philosophy, astronomy, and meteorology.  In the view of American mathematics historian, Florian Cajori, however, these and other books of the day were "the 'dry-bones' of American mathematical text-books" [18,180].  Cornell mathematics professors starting with James Oliver shared this opinion and went on to write their own texts geared specifically to the Cornell undergraduate.

What especially distinguished mathematics at Cornell from mathematics at most other American colleges in the late 1860s, however, was in the concept of "utility" that permeated the university, in general, and the Mathematics Department, in particular.   Under Evans and his assistants, mathematics at Cornell was taught with an emphasis on its application to areas such as mensuration, surveying, engineering, and architecture.  Evans, however, headed the department for only six years; he died of consumption on May 22, 1874 at the young age of 47 [23,15].