Business and Labor

The New England Teachers Who Invented New Math in 1788

By 1885 Americans were ready for new math. In 1773, the sixth edition of Thomas Dilworth’s classic Schoolmaster’s Assistant was the dominant textbook of the day for students in American grammar schools.

Dilworth was a British cleric and schoolteachers used his book as they delivered lessons to their pupils. It was the most widely used text for teaching math. (Dilworth also covered a host of other topics.)

A New Hampshire $1 note from 1780

A New Hampshire $1 note from 1780

But with the Revolution came a certain amount of hostility to many things British. And Dilworth’s books were very British indeed. His examples of diverting stories for children had a British flavor. His lessons in arithmetic used British units of measure and currency as measurements to be mastered.

While pounds, shillings and pence were still in use in America, the Congress was phasing them out and gradually transitioning people to a system of dollars and cents. And people needed to have their classrooms focus on the new money rather than the old.

New Math

It was too much to ask many school teachers to master the new currency themselves and present it to their students. A new text was needed. While any number of small texts were published and adopted in pockets of the country, Nicholas Pike was the first to put forward a book, in 1788, that would be widely adopted, the New and Complete System of Arithmetic – Composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States.

Pike was born in 1743 in Somersworth, N.H., and had taught in York, Maine before settling in Newburyport, Mass. Harvard-educated, Pike served as magistrate in Newburyport during the Revolution as well as selectman and head of the grammar school. Pike drafted his book and sent it to George Washington, asking that he might dedicate it to him. Washington replied that he was honored, but asked Pike to dedicate it to a scholar of New England.

“It gives me the highest satisfaction to find the Arts and Sciences making a progress in any Country; but when I see them advancing in the rising States of America I feel a peculiar pleasure: and in my opinion, every effort of Genius, and all attempts towards improving useful knowledge ought to meet with encouragement in this Country. Your performance is of the most useful and beneficial kind, and, from the opinion of those Gentlemen who have inspected it I have not the least doubt but that it is a very valuable one.”

Pike secured endorsements from Dartmouth, Harvard and Yale colleges for his work. That began a long run as a successful textbook.

More New Math

Pike was not alone in the field of math publishing, however. In 1799 Nathan Daboll of Groton, Conn. published his Daboll’s schoolmaster’s assistant: being a plain, practical system of arithmetic, adapted to the United States. Daboll was a teacher in New London, Conn. who taught navigation to sailors there. In the 1770s he began publishing almanacs, some featuring pro-American propaganda to help promote the Revolution.

After the war Daboll’s work became some famous he earned a mention in Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick, and when someone wanted a short-hand expression to mean that something was correct and beyond question, he said it was: “According to Daboll.”

Daniel Adams was another contributor to the Americanization of math texts when he published his The Scholar’s Arithmetic, or Federal Accountant in Leominster, Mass. In 1801. Adams was born in Townsend and became a physician in Leominster when he published the book. It gained widespread use for over 25 years. Adams himself was a legislator in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire and his life took him to Boston and then finally to New Hampshire where he settled in Keene.

Publishers even tried to update Dilworth’s old text for the American market, but it could not regain its position of dominance.

Hat tip to:  The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States, By Florian Cajori. This story last updated in 2022.

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