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Landmarks of Tompkins County, New York

by John H. Selkreg, 1894; D. Mason & Co., Publisher

History of Cornell
Chapter XIV.

This department was under the wise direction of Professor Evan Wilhelm EVANS until within a few months before his decease in 1874. He was proficient not only in mathematics but in geology and botany. He is remembered as a man of few words, but of a remarkably sound and independent judgment that carried great weight in the faculty councils, and as an acute and thorough student, a philosophical and original thinker, a firm and loyal friend. The best of his published work in mathematics is his "New method of solving cubic and trinomial equations of all degrees."1 It is very suggestive, and follows quite different lines from the usual methods; but the fuller statement of it planned by him was prevented by his failing health. His unpublished university lectures on modern synthetic geometry were elaborate and beautiful, and marked at the time almost a new departure for American colleges.

Characteristic of his instruction or policy were: the remarkable power of concentration with which he would follow others work without using his eyes, his uniform preference for oral above written examinations, and his habit of taking a calculus class over the same ground with two successive authors for the sake of the cross-light.

With Professor EVANS were associated here, at one time or another, Assistant-Professors Ziba H. POTTER, William E. ARNOLD, Henry T. EDDY, William J. HAMILTON, since deceased, Lucien A. WAIT, and J. E. OLIVER, and Instructor O. H. P. CORNELL. The chief branches taught were algebra beginning with quadratics, plane geometry, solid geometry, trigonometry with navigation and mensuration, analytic geometry, calculus, synthetic geometry, and descriptive astronomy, analytic geometry occupying one or two terms, calculus three terms, and each of the other subjects one term, for commonly five hours per week. There was also land-surveying, for students in agriculture and other on-technical courses. Algebra, plane and solid geometry, and trigonometry were required studies in all courses; astronomy in the course in science; analytic geometry, calculus and synthetic geometry, in engineering, mechanic arts and architecture. Thus more of fine mathematics was required in the university then than now, but an offset, except as to advanced mathematics in the technical courses, is in the increased entrance requirements and in the various electives now offered.

The requirement of quadratics for admission was made in Professor EVANS's day, that of plane geometry for all courses, and of solid for the technical, came later, and by degrees.

From 1873-4 on, the department has been administered, first by Professor OLIVER and afterwards by Professors OLIVER and WAIT. They have been ably seconded by Associate-Professor George William JONES, Assistant-Professors William E. BYERLY, James McMAHON and Arthur S. HATHAWAY, and Instructors George T. WINSTON, Madison M. GARVER, Morris R. CONABLE, Charles A. VAN VELZER, Duane STUDLEY, George E. FISHER, Charles S. FOWLER, Walker G. RAPPLEYE, John H. TANNER, Paul S. SAUREL, and William R. SHOEMAKER. Four of the professors, and five instructors, remain to-day; most of the others have become professors or presidents in other colleges, and several of these have achieved eminence.

The work of the department to-day, like the earlier work out of which it has grown, contemplates three great uses: 1. To help the average student in developing certain powers and habits which every good citizen and good thinker requires, namely of sustained, exact, candid independent reckoning, even when the subject-matter is general or abstract; of conscientiously scrutinizing a plausible argument, both in detail and in its general course; of imagination, to grasp as a whole a complex concept or scheme of thought; of inventiveness as to methods and possible relations; of applying theory to practical problems; of precision and clearness in stating one's own convictions and the grounds of them. 2. For those who wish to make pure and applied mathematics a specialty, to give some outlook over its different fields; and to fit these students for teaching, or for home reading and investigation, or for study at European universities. 3. To meet the needs of students in various branches of engineering, physics, and sociology.

The endeavor is not usually to cover all the ground in a given field, but to master the fundamental difficulties of concept and method, and secure whatever peculiar culture this implies, relying more upon insight and origination than upon memory, and making all necessary memory-work as philosophical as may be. Attention is also given to the criticism of methods and their motives, methods suggested by general considerations being preferred; to the concrete interpretation of important steps as well as of results; and to the separation of symbols and their laws from the particular subject-matter, so that either may be studied separately. Whether instruction be given by text-books with recitations and problem-working, by written exercises and examinations, or by lecture, seminary and directed reading, the class are regarded rather as the teacher's fellow-students than as mere recipients of instruction.

Supplementary to the usual college curriculum of pure mathematics, including calculus, electives are at present offered in geometric, algebraic and trigonometric problems, determinants and theory of equations, probabilities and least squares, modern analytic and synthetic geometry, advanced calculus, differentiated equations, finite differences, quantics, function-theory, theory oŁ numbers, and mathematical essays meant partly as studies of style; also, in descriptive and dynamic astronomy, rational mechanics, potential theory and special harmonics, and the mathematical theories of fluid motion as applied to meteorology, and of sound, light and electricity. There is also a seminary for the discussion of fundamental methods in algebra; one in mathematical pedagogy, to consider ideals and methods in mathematical study and writing as well as in teaching; one for application of mathematics to economic and social problems; and one, held in connection with the department of chemistry beginning with 1894-5, for the mathematical study of physical chemistry.

The number taking these various electives as undergraduate, graduate or special students has about kept pace with the general growth of the university; though the splendidly equipped technical courses on the one hand and the admirable scientific and humanistic work done here on the other hand, offer strong counter attractions. For, in the community at large, mathematics is still thought of merely as a good logical drill, and a key to the physical sciences with their applications. One great mission of the mathematical department here, as elsewhere, is to show that in healthily developing the geometric and philosophic imagination; in awakening an intelligent interest in the grand systems of worlds amid which our own is placed, as well as a sense of the beauty of purely intellectual relations; in adding definiteness to certain metaphysical concepts; and in that correlation of the abstract with the concrete and with the certain which will help to cure the prevalent distrust of ideals, mathematical studies have peculiar educational and even religious values that could ill be spared.

In the equipment of the department are now many of Brill's beautiful and useful models, and others are being added. The University Library has some thousands of books on astronomy and pure and applied mathematics, besides most of the chief American, English, French and German journals, and the transactions of many scientific societies. A steady growth is assured by the Sage Library fund, so that in time the collection of mathematical classics and sources will have become reasonably complete, thus facilitating kinds of work that were impossible in the university's earlier days.

1 Proceedings of University Convocation 1870.


The Department of Physics was one of those organized at the opening of the university. The first incumbent was Professor Eli W. BLAKE now professor of physics in Brown University. Professor BLAKE was succeeded after two years of service by Professor John J. BROWN, later of the University of Syracuse, who was followed, after one year, by Professor LOOMIS who served but two terms, and resigned in March 1872. After a short period, during which the chair was not filled, instruction in physics was given by Professor MORRIS, Assistant-Professor EDDY and others, William A. ANTHONY, Ph. B., a graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, was appointed to the professorship. Professor ANTHONY had previously filled similar positions in Antioch College, Ohio, and in the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Iowa. Under Professor ANTHONY, physics soon took a prominent position among the subjects of the university curriculum. Laboratory instruction was almost at once begun. The quarters assigned to physics in 1873 consisted of a small lecture room in the south wing of McGraw Hall, with a small ante-room under the raised seats, which was intended to serve as apparatus room, professor's office and general laboratory. Under the vigorous administration of Professor ANTHONY, the needs of the department soon outgrew these cramped quarters, and various rooms were obtained on the upper floors, and in the basement of White and Morrill Halls.

The equipment of the department during all the earlier years of the university was of a meager description, being in the main upon a par with that which might have been found in most of the smaller colleges of the country during that period of our educational development. There were a few noble pieces of illustrative apparatus for lecture room purposes, which had been purchased by President WHITE, but the collection included no instruments of precision. This condition of affairs lasted, subject only to such amelioration as could be attained by the indefatigable industry and the mechanical skill of the head of the department and of his assistant, George S. MOLER, who, from the time of his graduation in 1875, became a valuable attache, serving successively as laboratory assistant, instructor and assistant-professor.

In 1881, the Board of Trustees decided to build a physical and chemical laboratory combined. Franklin Hall was the result of that action. To the department of physics the lower floors and basement of this large four-storied building of brown sandstone were assigned, and a considerable sum of money was appropriated for the purchase of a suitable equipment. Professor ANTHONY spent some months in Europe in the summer of 1881, in selecting and purchasing apparatus. Many important instruments were, however, made in the United States, notably a large and very substantial comparator, designed for the department by Professor William A. ROGERS, a dividing engine designed by the same physicist, a standard clock by HOWARD, and a large spectrometer by FAUTH, of Washington, together with chronographs. The building of this laboratory marks an epoch in the history of the department, but a more important period was about to begin in the inauguration, two years later (1883), at the instance of Professor ANTHONY, of a course in electrical engineering. There was much opposition to the introduction of what was at that time a subject unrecognized upon the lists of the technical schools, and it was with difficulty that the Board of Trustees could be persuaded to sanction such an experiment. The course once announced, however, its success was immediate and marked. The Register of the following year, 1883-4, shows 12 students in electrical engineering; that of the tenth year following, 1893-4, contains 350 students, 28 of whom are in post graduate courses. In 1883, the instructing force of the department consisted of Professor ANTHONY and Assistant-Professor MOLER. In 1893, it consisted of the head of the department, Professor Edward L. NICHOLS who had succeeded Professor ANTHONY in 1887, at which time the latter resigned his chair to engage in practical work in electrical engineering, of three assistant-professors, G. S. MOLER, Ernest MERRITT and Frederick BEDELL, and of seven instructors and assistants. During this last decade the growth of the technical schools connected with Cornell University so increased the number of students having required work in chemistry and physics, that it became necessary to build a new chemical laboratory and to assign the whole of Franklin Hall, together with the adjoining structure known as the chemical annex, to the latter department. In the year 1893-4, there were over six hundred undergraduates who were receiving instruction in laboratories and class rooms in the department of physics, together with some forty graduate students who were engaged in advanced work and in investigation. In 1893, another important step in the history of physics of Cornell University was taken in the foundation of the Physical Review, a bi-monthly journal devoted to original work in experimental physics. This journal is edited by Professors NICHOLS and MERRITT and is published for the university by Messrs. Macmillan & Co., of New York.

History of Cornell - Chapter XV

Carl Hommel donated this material and transcribed into digital format.
Thank you Carl Hommel.

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