From Newton to Newcomen. Mathematics and Technology in the Western World
Industrialization and imperialism in Europe, the geographical focus of the talk, increasingly relied on the application of mathematics to technology. Mathematical literacy was becoming a requirement for significant sections of society, and relatively new branches of mathematics were starting to be applied to a range of technological problems. The talk will consider the generation of mathematical knowledge and skills as an answer to the considerable needs of an industrialized society: surveying, agriculture, civil engineering, transport, and power supply all required improvement in order to satisfy a growing population. Imperial interests also required mathematical skills such as those developed for navigation, and improved artillery. Taxes on alcohol demanded thousands of mathematically literate excise men. Text books of the period reveal the wide range of occupations now relying on elementary mathematics. On the other hand, the calculus was opening up new possibilities. Accordingly, Leonhard Euler asserted: “We are beholden to sublime mathematics (calculus) for the modern discoveries which have been made.” Both aspects will be discussed.
Jane Wess holds a physics degree and spent two years teaching mathematics before a long career at the Science Museum, London, where she was curator of mathematics from 1991 until 2012. More recently she has completed a doctorate with Edinburgh University studying the use of mathematical instruments in exploration. Her particular interests are in experimental philosophy and mathematics in the 18th century, having worked on the King George III Collection of instruments. She has published on several aspects on the history of mathematics including navigation, mathematical learning tools, and logic demonstrators. Her most recent paper is on Colin MacLaurin and his contemporaries where she contrasts the local with the universal in the approach to wind and water power.