A textbook revolution: J. Deighton and Sons and the reform of mathematics in early nineteenth-century Cambridge

Jon Topham

University of Cambridge

Historians have long considered the transformation which took place in the mathematical studies of the University of Cambridge in the early nineteenth century to be a critical event in the development of British mathematics and mathematical physics, with far-reaching consequences for subsequent generations of students which included William Thomson and James Clerk Maxwell. As a result, there exists an extensive body of literature which examines the causes of this transformation, focusing particularly on the activities of the members of the Analytical Society - a short-lived student society formed in 1812 by, among others, Charles Babbage, William Herschel, and George Peacock. This generation of Cambridge students arrived in a University where the dominant pedagogical framework prescribed by the Senate House examination embodied a geometrical, intuitive approach to mathematical studies which was presented as standing in a Newtonian tradition, and which repudiated in partisan terms the analytical approach by which the great innovations of Continental, and particularly French, mathematicians of the later eighteenth century had been achieved.

However, while the formation of the Analytical Society was undoubtedly a significant moment in the history of the mathematical studies of the University, it is generally agreed that it was more so for its impact on the small coterie of its members than for any direct impact on the studies of the University as a whole. The introduction of a more analytical approach to mathematics in this wider context, it is considered, owed more to changes in pedagogy effected in the later years of the decade--in particular, the introduction by George Peacock of the continental differential notation into the Senate House examination in 1817 and 1819, and the introduction by William Whewell and others of new textbooks incorporating analytical approaches.

While textbooks are always likely to be prominent in any account of curricular reform, such accounts tend to be written chiefly from the perspective of the texts ultimately produced, with little attention accorded to the processes of book production and distribution. Thus, for all the references to textbooks in the literature on the analytical revolution in Cambridge mathematics, only one author mentions the leading Cambridge publishing firm, the house of Deighton, which was responsible for publishing most of the textbooks circulating in the University, and even then, it is only to observe that it would be worth a study. My purpose in this paper was to examine the changes which occurred in Cambridge mathematical education in the second decade of the nineteenth century in the context of the local book trade. Whilst not demanding a major revision of the received understanding of these changes, I argued that such an approach provides important additional insights into the reform movement.

I began the paper by outlining the context of the Cambridge book trade, concentrating on the special place of textbooks in the local market, and on John Deightons rise to pre-eminence in that market. I next re-examined the activities of the Analytical Society in the context of the local culture of print, pointing out the extent to which the young students were divorced from the machinery of pedagagic publishing. Finally, I briefly contrasted their experience with that of William Whewell, who was able to manipulate the machinery of pedagogic publishing to make an effectual contribution to the reform of the curriculum.

Table of Contents - Joint Meeting between the Textbook Colloquium and The British Society for the History of Science held on January 10th 1998 at Leeds University.


© 1998