SCIENCE HISTORY —
How the equals sign changed the world
500 years ago, tragic Welsh genius Robert Recorde wanted to teach math to ordinary people.
ESTHER INGLIS-ARKELL – 7/9/2017, 9:00 AM
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Recorde found it irritating to have to state over and over that one side of an equation was equal to the other side. He wrote, with obvious annoyance and whimsical spelling, “And to avoide the tedious repetition of these woordes, is equalle to, I will sette as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles.” Instead of using a phrase to convey meaning, he would convey the same meaning with a symbol. What symbol could be more appropriate than a pair of equal-length lines? Nothing, Recorde explained, “noe 2 thyngs, can be moare equalle.”
Recorde’s symbol didn’t catch on at first. The language of Latin still held sway during the 16th century. Latin had a word for the concept, “aequalis,” and if more concision was necessary, people could shorten it to “ae” or “oe.” But aiding the popularity of the equals sign was Recorde’s introduction, to English-speakers, of the German symbols “+” and “-“. In combination, these signs allowed people to express, quickly and with a minimum of wasted ink, a mathematical equation in symbols. Instead of writing, “A factore added to a quantitie of thryeye is equalle to a dyffyrynte factore frome whyche is takene awaye a quantitie of foure,” a mathematician could write: “x + 3 = y – 4”.
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Sadly, Recorde wasn’t lauded as a hero of rationality and math education in his lifetime. Brilliant as he was, he forgot one of the basic rules of his day: the aristocracy always wins.
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I particularly like the observation that he brought “quantification” to the general population.
Sad that he wound up being “unequal”.
Imagine if the human race cherished genius instead of celebrity, status, or “royalty”.
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