1788 book set math course for Americans

Published 10:11 am Monday, May 6, 2024

By Gene Hays

MSgt USMC (Ret)

By 1785 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. 

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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. But with the American Revolution came a certain amount of hostility to many things British. 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. Pounds, shillings, and pence were still in use in America; Congress was phasing them out, replacing them with a system of dollars and cents. 

It was difficult for teachers and students alike to master the new currency on their own. 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 accepted, titled 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, New Hampshire, had taught in York, Maine before settling in Newburyport, Mass. Pike was Harvard-educated, had served as magistrate in Newburyport during the Revolution,  and was a selectman and head of the grammar school. 

In order to make the book more accepted, Pike sent it to George Washington, asking if he might dedicate it to him. Washington replied that while he was honored, Pike should dedicate it to a scholar of New England. 

Washington wrote: “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 valuable one.” 

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

Pike was not alone in the field of math publishing, however. In 1799 Nathan Daboll of Groton, Connecticut, 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, Connecticut, 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 so 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 of Massachusetts 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. The book  gained widespread use for over 25 years. 

Publishers even tried to update Dilworth’s old text for the American market, but it could not regain its position of dominance. During the French Revolution, France and most European nations adopted the Metric System. The Metric system uses the meter, liter, and gram as base units of length (distance), capacity (volume), and weight (mass) respectively. In America, the American Measurement Standard, AKA as the Customary System. 

Gene Hays is an author and historian with books on Amazon.