The early history of the Oliver Club

The Cornell Mathematics Club (1890-1895) and the Oliver Club (1898-present)

The Department of Mathematics Colloquium has been in operation under the name "The Oliver Club" since 1898. Its predecessor, "the Mathematical Club of Cornell University" was organized in 1891 by James Edward Oliver, the Chair of the Department, after he returned from a year spent at the University of Göttingen, visiting Felix Klein.

The first meeting of the Mathematical Club took place on January 24 1891. The club stopped functioning in 1895 after Oliver passed away. It reappeared on October 10 1898 under the name "Oliver Mathematical Club of Cornell University".

The by-laws of the club are given below together with a text written by Bill Waterhouse in 1971 which gives a short history of the club.

This is followed by an annotated list of members of Section A for the first two years (in its first installment, the club had two sections).

Constitution of the Mathematical Club of Cornell University

  • Article I. Name.

    The name of this organization shall be "The Mathematical Club of Cornell University."

  • Article II. Object.

    The object of the club is mutual association, and discussion of mathematical questions of interest.

  • Article III. Officers; Duties of; Election of; etc.

    • Sec. 1. The officers of the club shall be a President, a Secretary for each division, and a Standing Committee of three, of which the President shall be ex-officio Chairman.
    • Sec. 2. The President shall preside at all meetings. The Secretary shall keep a record of the transactions of his division of the club. The Standing Committee shall arrange the programmes for the meetings of the Club.
    • Sec. 3. The term of office for the above named officers shall be one year.
    • Sec. 4. The officers shall be elected by a majority vote of the members of the club present at the first regular meeting of each calendar year.
    • Sec. 5. If at any time a vacancy in any office occur such vacancy shall be filled, by election, at the next regular meeting.
  • Article IV. Members; Eligibility; Election of; etc.

    • Sec. 1. Any member of the University who is in sympathy with the work of the club shall be eligible to membership therein.
    • Sec. 2. Any eligible person may be a candidate for either division of the club; and is to be elected by a majority vote of that division before which his name is proposed by the standing committee.
    • Sec. 3. There shall be two divisions of the club, the dividing line being drawn at an elementary knowledge of the differential calculus.
  • Article V. Meetings.

    The regular meetings of each division shall be bi-weekly; but a meeting of the entire club may take place of either division, subject to call of the standing committee. [It is also tacitly understood that the secretary of division 'A" shall at a joint meeting of the club act as secretary for such meeting.]

  • Article VI. Amendments.

    This constitution may be amended by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the members present at a joint meeting of the two divisions.

  • Amendment to Article III, Sec 1, passed January 16, 1892.

    The officers of the club shall be a President, a Secretary for each division, and a Standing Committee of five, consisting of the President and the two Secretaries, ex-officio, and two other members chosen by the club. The President shall be chairman of the Standing Committee and two members including the chairman shall be a quorum of the Committee.

Early History of the Oliver Club (Compiled by Bill Waterhouse, 11/2/1971)

James Edward Oliver, second Chairman of the Department, organized the Mathematical Club of Cornell University in January, 1891, as a forum for discussion of mathematics outside the regular curriculum by Department faculty and students. The club was to meet in people’s houses on Friday or Saturday evening for a couple of hours and each time have a formal talk followed by discussion. To take into account the wide variation of knowledge of the participants, Professor Oliver thought in terms of two sections of the club meeting in alternate weeks. Section A would deal with mathematics beyond differential calculus, and Section B would deal with the rest - geometry, trigonometry, number theory, and so an. A committee prepared a constitution to this effect, and members of the Department met, presumably in Professor Oliver’s house, on January 24. The minutes of the first meeting read as follows:

The first regular meeting of the Mathematical Club was called to order by Professor Oliver at eight o’clock, Saturday evening, January 24, 1891. On a motion it was decided to proceed with the business of organization before listening to the mathematical reports.

In the absence of the Chairman of the Committee on Organization, Mr. Tanner read the constitution the committee had drawn up. After this first reading, it was read again this time section by section and was amended and adopted. After the adoption of the constitution, the election of officers was declared in order. Professor Oliver was chosen president by acclamation. Professor Hathaway and Mr. Fowler were elected to the governing committee. The choice of secretaries was left to the two sections at their separate meetings.

This business having been disposed of, Mr. Fowler gave the club an interesting talk on Riemann’s plane. In the discussion that followed Professor Oliver mentioned the great beauty and use of this mode of representing a complex variable.

By this time it had grown late, and it was decided to postpone Professor Hathaway's report. Those present were declared members of the club and were asked to sign their names to the constitution. The committee on organization was instructed to put the constitution into shape and to report at the next meeting. The meeting of Section A was set down for January 31. The club then adjourned.

Paul Saurel, Secretary pro. tem.

Section A met fairly regularly every two weeks while the university was in session through May, 1894. The book of minutes provides detail about the lectures. The topics were rather elementary, considering the extraordinary advances made in mathematical research in the 1880’s. For example, there were talks on the geometric nature of the mapping w = e^z, on linear fractional transformations, on special types of ordinary differential equations, and on evaluation of indefinite integrals. Occasionally either the speaker or the secretary (probably the latter) would go astray. In the minutes for 1892-1893, for example, appears the passage,

The club met in joint session at the house of the president, Prof, Oliver, Oct. 21. ... The president then interested the club by presenting several mathematical recreations, as the coloring of maps and various figures, showing that any figure can be colored with 4 different colors, and that 4 colors are needed for complex figures. After adjournment the Club was very pleasantly entertained by Prof. and Mrs. Oliver.

E.C. Townsend, Sec.

Section B, meanwhile, met less regularly, but aimed for a meeting every other week. There are hints in the minutes that Section A looked down on Section B, but the quality of the talks did not justify such an attitude. The titles of Section B talks include "The permanence of equivalent (quadratic) forms," "Economy of logarithmic computations," and “Directed arcs and the general spherical triangle.” The secretary of Section B took attendance until the end of 1892-1893, and attendance fluctuated between 3 and 12. The last meeting of Section B was April 21, 1894.

Professor Oliver died in 1895, while still Chairman and the Mathematical Club stopped functioning. In 1898 the club reappeared bearing the name "Oliver Mathematical Club of Cornell University." The first talk was October 10, 1898, by J.I. Hutchinson on "Some theorems concerning the Hessian of the cubic surface." No longer were there two sections; the club met every other week, and each speaker wrote an abstract of his talk in the minutes. The lectures were now more research-oriented and showed a marked increase in sophistication. The main subjects of the lectures in the beginning were algebraic geometry and finite groups. Most of the talks on the latter were presented by the noted group theorist G.A. Miller. One of Miller's talks detailed the progress to 1900 on the problem of deciding whether all finite groups of odd order are solvable. The last entry in the early minutes is for May 20, 1901, but it is likely that the Oliver Club continued, without essential interruption, to the present day.

There is one further document in the early records, a note dated March 24, 1930, revealing the topic of the lectures at that time:

At the next meeting of the Oliver Mathematical Club Professor Hurwitz will continue the discussion of Murnaghan up to page 67.

C.C. Torrance Secretary-Treasurer

P.S. If there is anyone who can be allured, animated, aroused, attracted, bribed, bulldozed, cajoled, coaxed, coerced, compelled, decoyed, dragged, drawn, driven, drummed, emboldened, encouraged, enmeshed, ensnared, enticed, flattered, frightened, goaded, hoaxed, hoodwinked, impelled, incited, induced, inspired, instigated, inveighed, lured, moved, nerved, persuaded, pressed, quickened, stimulated, spurred, stirred, swayed, tempted, terrorized, threatened, tricked, urged, wheedled, or otherwise influenced by blandishment, drugs, duress, or lucre into giving a talk on Murnaghan an May 29, will he or she please communicate with the secretary.

The book in question is probably Vector Analysis and the Theory of Relativity, John Hopkins Press, 1922. The Department files contain a complete list of the Oliver Club lectures from 1939 to date. The practice of having speakers from outside Cornell began in moderation in 1940, with two or three such people a year for several years, and blossomed in 1948 with seven. In that year there is the first mention of honorarium. Five of the seven visitors received $10 apiece.

Members of the club, Section A, 1890-91 and 1891-92

  • 1890-91: Professor Oliver, McMahon, Hathaway; Mr. Folwer, Rappleye, Studley; Miss Palmié, Davis, Gibbs, Miller, Hawley; Mr. Kerr, Michaelson, Nichols, Pawling, Rogers, Royse, Saurel, Shearer, Shoemaker, Snyder, Tanner.
  • 1891-92: Professor Oliver, McMahon; Mr. Fowler, Rappleye, Tanner, Shoemaker; Miss Miller; Mr. Fite, Bedell, Crehore, Saurel, Shearer, Snyder, Pawling, Root, Banks.

There were 22 members in 1890-91 and 16 in 1891-92 including 5 new members. The Club membership for the first year consists of 3 regular Faculty (Oliver was Professor and Chair, Hathaway and McMahon had just been promoted to the rank Assistant Professor in 1890), 11 graduates students 3 of which were instructors (Fowler, Rappleye, Studley, Palmié, Nichols, Pawling, Rogers, Royse, Saurel, Shoemaker and Snyder). This list includes all but two graduates students registered with a mention of mathematics for the academic year 1890-91. The missing two are Samuel J. Saunders (Physics and Mathematics) and William H. Morrison (Chemistry and Mathematics). The remaining 8 members were undergraduate juniors and seniors.

The second year membership consists of 2 Professors, 10 graduates students including 4 serving as instructors and 2 undergraduate seniors (Fite and Root).

These lists are arranged by rank as follows: Professors, Instructors, Female students (graduate and undergraduate), Male students (graduate and undergraduate). The reader can find information about Professor Oliver, McMahon and Hathaway elsewhere on this website. Hathaway left Cornell during the summer of 1891 to take a professorship at Rose Polytechnic. Notable is the absence of Professor G. Jones and L. Wait from these lists.

Charles Summer Fowler, AB ’88 was Instructor in the department 1888-1895. He was an early member of the New York Mathematical Society (1891) and later worked for the Civil Service Commission, New York State. Walker Glazier Rappleye, BS ’82 was an Instructor 1889-94. He later taught at the State Normal School, Oswego. Duane Studley, BS ’81 was an Instructor 1887-92 and later taught at Wabash College. All three were also graduate students. None of them received a Ph.D.

Anna Helene Palmié, Ph.B. ’90, was a graduate student supported by the Erastus Brooks Fellowship in Mathematics 1890-91. She did further graduate study at Chicago and Göttingen and later became Professor at the Flora Stone Mather College, the women's college of Western Reserve University in Cleveland (Case-Western University).

Eunice Maria Davis, BS '91 with Special mention Mathematics, was from Binghamton. She was an undergraduate Senior supported by a Sage Scholarship for Women. She later was a Teacher of Mathematics, Union School, Batavia, 1891-95. Kate Francesca Gibbs was an undergraduate special student in mathematics, also from Binghamton. Katharine Moncrief Miller was from New York City, an undergraduate special student in mathematics 90-92. Sarah Ellen Hawley, AB '91, came from Brandon, Vt. and was an undergraduate Senior. She later taught at Northfield Seminary, Mass., 1891-93 and the State Normal School, Albany, NY, 1893-95.

Irvine Jay Kerr BS '91 was an undergraduate Senior from Ithaca studying natural history. He wrote an undergraduate thesis titled "The Histology of the Insula in Primates". Joseph McConnechy Michaelson CE '92, came from Geneva and was an undergraduate Junior in Civil Engineering supported by the Sage Scholarship. John Henry Tanner BS '91 was an undergraduate Senior supported by the Cornell scholarship in 1891. He graduated on the Honor List and with Special Mention in Mathematics with a thesis "The Geometry of the Straight Line and Plane, treated by pure Quaternion Methods; together with a Brief Discussion of some Plane Curves and Surfaces of the Second Order." In 1891-92, he was an Instructor and graduate student. He studied at Göttingen 1894-96 and became a pillar of the department. Louis Carroll Root was an undergraduate Senior graduating BA in 1892. He became a banker and economist. William Benjamin Fite was an undergraduate Senior who graduated PhB in 1892. He would received a Mathematics Ph.D. at Cornell in 1901 and teach in the department until joining Columbia University in 1911. He retired in 1942 at Columbia as the Davies Professor of Mathematics Emeritus.

John Sandford Shearer, from Homer, was an undergraduate optional student. He graduated BS in 1893 and received a Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell in 1901. His obituary reads as follows: In the death of Professor John Sandford Shearer, Cornell loses one of her most loyal and capable educators and alumni. For twenty-nine years a member or the instructing staff of the University he has labored ardently and faithfully in the fulfillment of his work. Devoting his attention to the physics of the X-Ray Professor Shearer had become one of the foremost scientists in this field in the country. As head of the overseas X-Ray branch of the medical corps of the army during the war Lieutenant-Colonel Shearer performed a service to humanity which is almost unrivaled. All who have come in contact with him either in the classroom or otherwise have nothing but praise for the knowledge he imparted to them, and the influence he exerted over them. All Cornell mourns his loss; his death leaves a vacancy in the ranks of the faculty which will be difficult to fill.

Jesse Jr. Pawling (AB, Philadelphia) BS '93 was enrolled as a graduate student not candidate for a degree 1890-94. He later worked at the US Naval Observatory. Daniel Royse (BME, Purdue University), MME '91, was a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering supported by the The Sibley Fellowship. He later was editor of Street Railway Review. William Ross Shoemaker (BS, Iowa State College) was a graduate student in Mathematics, 1890-94. He became a Clergyman. Virgil Snyder (BS, Iowa State College) was in his first year as a graduate student in Mathematics and Physics at Cornell. He later earned his Ph.D. at Göttingen under Felix Klein and returned to Cornell for a brilliant career. John Edwin Banks (BCE, Iowa Agricultural College) was a graduate student specializing in Bridge Engineering.

Ernest Fox Nichols (BS, Kansas Agricultural College) was a graduate student in Mathematics and Physics. He received an MS in 1893 and a Science Doctorate in 1897 from Cornell. Nichols was a professor of physics at Colgate College (1892-1898), Dartmouth College (1898-1903), Yale University (1916), and Columbia University (1903-1916). He was president of Dartmouth from 1909-1916 and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during 1921 and 1922.

Frederick Bedell, (AB Yale) was a graduate student in Physics and Electrical Engineering. In 1892, he received the first Ph.D. awarded by the physics department and was immediately appointed Assistant Professor in that department. He served Cornell for 45 years. His title was Professor of Applied Electricity. His most important contributions in Electrical Engineering were in experimental investigations and theoretical studies in connection with alternating currents.

Albert Cushing Crehore (AB Yale) was a graduate student in Physics and Electricity who, like Bedell, received his PhD in 1892. Bedell and Crehore wrote a book together "ALTERNATING CURRENTS, Analytical and Graphical Treatment" which was for many years a standard text on the subject. Bedell maried Crehore's sister Mary Louise Crehore. Crehore became a popular writer and inventor. He taught at Cornell and Dartmouth universities and was author of The Atom (1920) and Electrons, Atoms, Molecules (1946).

Frederick John Rogers (BS, Kansas State Agricultural College) was a graduate student in Mathematics and Physics and received a Science Master in 1891. Rogers was called to Stanford in 1900 from Cornell University, where for eight years he had been a member of the Department of Physics. He served Stanford in the several professorial grades without interruption from 1900 until his retirement in 1929.

Paul Louis Saurel, a graduate student at the time, was the first secretary of the Mathematical Club. He had graduated BS in 1890 from the College of the City of New York and enrolled as a graduate Student in Mathematics at Cornell 1890-96, serving as instructor 1892-96. He returned to the College of the City of New York in 1896 serving successively as tutor, instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor and Head of Mathematics from 1919 until his retirement. He obtained a Science Doctorate from the University of Bordeaux, France in 1900. He died while vacationing in Paris after his retirement in 1934.

The other two secretaries mentioned in Bill Waterhouse's text above are E. C. Townsend (1892-93) and C.C. Torrance (1929-30). In 1892-93, Edward Candee Townsend, from Ithaca, was a undergraduate senior. He graduated BA '93 with special mention in Mathematics. Charles Chapman Torrance was an undergraduate at Cornell, graduating ME in 1922. He was then a mathematics graduate student at Cornell and obtained his Ph.D. under Virgil Snyder in 1931. He was an invited speaker at the 1934 International Congress of Mathematicians in Oslo. He co-authored a book titled "Functional Analysis" with J. von Neumann and R. S. Martin. He was Professor of Mathematics and Mechanics at the Naval Postgraduate School.