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Figure It Out

Daniel Sutherland's ciphering book, 1825-1828

Daniel Sutherland’s ciphering book, 1825-1828

It is 1805.  Your task is to ascertain the weight of gold equivalent to a Spanish “piece of eight.”  Then you must convert English pounds to Virginia currency.  Master the addition, subtraction and multiplication of decimals.  Calculate simple and compound interest.  Determine the number of square feet in a circle.  Then solve one of those wonderful word problems to find the prices paid by a farmer who bought three items for X dollars, the second costing 4 times as much as the first and the third costing 5 times as much as the second.  No calculators, no computers, and only a candle to help your weary eyes.

If you were a diligent student of what was then known as ciphering, you first learned the rules for solving all these mysteries, copied them out in your ciphering book, then filled the rest of the page with practice exercises.

WKU’s Special Collections Library holds at least 20 such ciphering books in its collections.  Dog-eared and well worn, they date from as early as 1792 and document their owners’ struggles to understand the principles of mathematics, commerce, surveying and navigation.

Download .pdf files of John King’s 1831 ciphering book and John Bowles’ 1839 ciphering book.  For more, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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