St Andrews History of Maths Seminar

St Andrews History of Maths Seminar

Wednesday 14 December 2022 - 16.00

St Andrews History of Maths group is delighted to announce this online seminar, which will take place online. For the meeting link, please email Isobel Falconer (

14 December, 1600 GMT

Philippe Schmid (St Andrews and Harvard), Journals as Teaching Aids: Student Note-Taking and Mathematical Culture in the Early Scottish Enlightenment


This paper studies scholarly journals as instruments of mathematical teaching at the University of St Andrews during the early Scottish Enlightenment. Focusing on the well-known figure of Newton’s experimentum crucis, which illustrates the refraction of light with a simple line drawing, I trace the copy of the illustration in a student notebook in 1678, its original depiction in journal articles and its subsequent discussion in printed university dissertations. Notebooks and note-taking played a central role in the early modern transmission of knowledge, as the work of Ann Blair, Matthew Eddy, Angus Vine and others has shown. Matthew Eddy has emphasised the close relationship between note-taking and the Scottish Enlightenment during the eighteenth century. In my paper, I show that manuscript textbooks drawn up by students were an important vehicle of mathematical culture even before the eighteenth century. Practices of dictation, note-taking and drawing were essential for the reception of Newtonianism during the early Scottish Enlightenment, which has recently been brought to our attention by Kelsey Jackson Williams. At the same time, I argue that student notebooks should be seen as part of a wider media ecology at early modern universities. Vera Keller revealed how periodical publication ‘fundamentally transformed scholarly practices’ in the seventeenth century. Indeed Newton’s figure in the student notebook was copied not from a textbook or from an original drawing – Newton’s Opticks would only be published in 1704 and his original sketch is visibly different  – but from the illustrations in Newton’s original articles in the Philosophical Transactions. In addition to textbooks and manuscripts, which have been studied in detail by Ann Blair and Anja-Silvia Goeing, my paper highlights periodical publications as an early modern instrument of mathematical teaching. Drawings were translated from one medium into another, with periodicals both preceding and directing the notes which students took in class.

To register (free) and receive the link, email Isobel Falconer (