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I recently learned some things about how the young George Washington did math, including surveying. Mathematician and historian gave a talk 2 nights ago at the Mathematical Association of America here in DC, based on his study of GW’s “cypher books”, and I’d like to share a few things I learned.

(1) The young George appears to have used no trigonometry at all when finding areas of plots of land that he surveyed. Instead, he would ‘plat’ it very carefully, on paper, making an accurate scale drawing with the correct angles and lengths, and then would divide it up into triangles on the paper. To find the areas of those triangles, he would use some sort of a right-angle device, found and drew the altitude, and then multiplied half the base times the height (or altitude). No law of cosines or sines as we teach students today.

(2) He was given formulas for the volumes of spheroids and barrels, apparently without any derivation or justification that they were correct, to hold so many gallons of wine or of beer. (You probably wouldn’t guess that you had to leave extra room for the ‘head’ on the beer.) Rickey has not found the original source for those formulas, but using calculus and the identity pi = 22/7, he showed that they were absolutely correct.

(3) GW was a very early adopter of decimals in America.

(4 ) This last one puzzled me quite a bit. It’s supposed to be a protractor, but it only gives approximations to those angles. The results are within 1 degree, which I guess might be OK for some uses. I used the law of cosines to convince myself that they were almost all a little off. Here’s an accurate diagram, with angle measurements, that I made with Geometer’s Sketchpad.

His method was to lay out on paper a segment 60 units long (OB) and then to construct a sixth-of-a-circle with center B, passing through O and G (in green). Then he drew five more arcs, each with its center at O, going through the poitns marked as 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 units from O. The claim is then that angle ABO would be 10 degrees. It’s not. It’s only 9.56 degrees.