Smithsonian Celebrates Mathematics Awareness Month

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Little known fact—April is Mathematics Awareness Month. And, of course, the Smithsonian Institution will not let the cause go unacknowledged.

For one, Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, curator of mathematics at the National Museum of American History, will be delivering a lecture on the "Tools of American Mathematics Teaching" today, April 8, at 4 p.m. in a lecture hall in the National Museum of African Art. Kidwell co-authored a book of the same title in 2008, and her talk draws heavily on the mathematical artifacts in the Smithsonian collection.

Now, I'm no whiz at math (I'm a writer, remember). In fact, math tests used to give me hives. But even still, I felt a warm feeling of nostalgia when I attended a donation ceremony in September 2007, during which Jerry Merryman, one of the inventors of the first hand-held calculator, handed over a host of Texas Instruments originals (TI-58 and 59, a TI-30, a TI-Navigator Classroom System and the TI-Nspire handhelds and computer software) to the American History Museum. Merryman recalled the story of the first calculator—how he and two others invented the four-function, nearly three-pound personal computing device, effectively replacing a typewriter-sized, 55-pound predecessor—as I daydreamed about my first, a robin's egg blue TI-36 scientific calculator that got me through algebra.

So I'm sure the more mathematically inclined remember slide rules and other math class gadgets with fondness. That said, I bring to you five interesting items you may not have known were in the NMAH collection:

1. Do you remember brightly-colored Cuisenaire rods? Each color rod represents a different length, and they are used to help elementary students master simple addition and fractions. Emile-Georges Cuisenaire (1891-1976), a Belgian schoolteacher, invented the hands-on teaching tool, and published a book on the teaching method in French in 1953 that was later translated to English. Cuisenaire rods were popular in the 1950s and 60s, but I remember using them in the 90s. A set was gifted to NMAH.

2. Before the calculator, there was the slide rule. The widely-used apparatus helped users with multiplication, division and other calculations. Teachers would often demonstrate how to use them with an oversized slide rule, like the 79-inch, circa-1967 Keuffel & Esser 68-1944 Demonstration Slide Rule that the Winchester-Thurston School for girls in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, donated to the museum. Calculators would replace slide rules sometime around the late 1970s.

3. Flash cards never go out of style. The museum has a retro set from 1966 made by Ed-u-Card in Long Island City. These "New Math Addition Flash Cards" were "new" in that the mathematical problems were written horizontally with a sliding blank box that would cover the unknown variable in the equation.

4. Also included in the collection is an IBM 1500 Instructional System. A what? The system was a 1966 take on the computer, complete with a display, light pen, keyboard, central processing unit and a central control unit. It was capable of producing images and sound, storing data and printing, but at an extreme cost. Each station ran more than $600,000. Needless to say, there were only about 30 scattered around the world. To think that now there are prototypes for $100 laptops.

5. You may know Crockett Johnson for his cartoon strip "Barnaby" or his beloved children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon. But have you ever seen his paintings inspired by diagrams in math text books? The NMAH is home to several of them.


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