Pi Day in Special Collections

March 15th, 2014

In honor of Pi Day (March 14 = 3/14) we offer two excerpts from 18th-century mathematics books in our holdings. The first, from a work by David Gregory (1659-1708) published in English translation as A treatise of practical geometry in three parts (Edinburgh, 1745),

addressed the problem of finding the circumference of a circle knowing its diameter.

Gregory (or his translator) did not use the word pi or the Greek character π in this context, referring instead to the work of the 17th-century Dutch mathematician Ludolf van Ceulen establishing the quantity with much greater precision than our shorthand approximation to two decimal places (3.14).  (The passage in question used a rather odd Latinized form of van Ceulen’s first name). Special Collections also holds an 18th-century edition of van Ceulen’s work.

In a foldout plate in his Geometrical and graphical essays of 1791,

the instrument-maker George Adams (1750-1795) included diagrams of polygons inscribed in a circle or circumscribing it:  

Thanks to Anthony Lattis for zeroing in on Gregory’s and Adams’ treatments of π.