Monday, November 5, 2012

Benjamin Wardhaugh's "Poor Robin's Prophesies"

Benjamin Wardhaugh is a historian and writer. He is the author of several successful books about mathematics, music, and history, most recently the anthology of popular mathematics writing A Wealth of Numbers ("a unique book that is equal to far more than the sum of its parts").

His new book is Poor Robin's Prophesies: A Curious Almanac, and the Everyday Mathematics of Georgian England, an account of the wonderful world of popular mathematics in eighteenth-century Britain.

Wardhaugh applied the “Page 99 Test” to Poor Robin's Prophesies and reported the following:
From page 99:
I look upon Money itself to be a Commodity, which like others rises and falls as there is a demand for it.
There's a thought. It was written in 1726, by a man who'd come through the great financial disaster of the South Sea Bubble six years before, so he had every reason to know. His name was John Smart ('gent.'), and his book for accountants would be used in reprinted and plagiarized form for nearly two hundred years. I talk about a copy of the book whose owners included Frederick, Baron North and Edwin Bayford's Family Mourning Warehouse of Barnsley. Even an accountants' manual can go on an entertaining journey.

Despite projecting some self-confidence about prediction and control in his book, Smart knew perfectly well - don't we all? - that financial events take their own path. Money, like other things, 'rises and falls' according to whim, chance, fashion, and laws that no-one can know.

Smart's book and its story come in a chapter called 'My Scarbrough Expenses', a tour of everyday mathematics in use: keeping accounts, measuring fields, measuring beer barrels. The chapter title comes from an account-book kept by a young woman early in the eighteenth century. She wrote down every penny she spent at home and on her travels. Her trip to the spa town of Scarbrough involved gifts for the servants and 'the poor people', three shillings 'for going into the sea', and the splendid indulgence of '8 pound of Coffee'.

Although John Smart isn't the most important or the most charismatic of the people I talk about, page 99 does illustrate the themes that run throughout my book: mathematics with a human face; what it could do and what it couldn't do; where mathematics was and what it was doing in Georgian Britain. The Poor Robin of the title was the author of a long-running almanac, an annual calendar and book of general knowledge, full of bad jokes and silly rhymes, but also a route map for just that subject: everyday mathematics in Georgian Britain.
Learn more about the book and author at Benjamin Wardhaugh's website.

--Marshal Zeringue