Biographers of Sir Isaac Newton make particular mention of five mathematical books which he read while a young student at Cambridge, namely, Euclid's Elements, Descartes's Géométrie, Viète's Works, Van Schooten's Miscellanies, and Oughtred's Clavis mathematicae. The last of these books has been receiving increasing attention from the historians of algebra in recent years. We have prepared this sketch because we felt that there were points of interest in the life and activity of Oughtred which have not received adequate treatment. Historians have discussed his share in the development of symbolic algebra, but some have fallen into errors, due to inability to examine the original editions of Oughtred's Clavis mathematicae, which are quite rare and inaccessible to most readers. Moreover, historians have failed utterly to recognize his inventions of mathematical instruments, particularly the slide rule; they have completely overlooked his educational views and his ideas on mathematical teaching. The modern reader may pause with profit to consider briefly the career of this interesting man.
Oughtred was not a professional mathematician. He did not make his livelihood as a teacher of mathematics or as a writer, nor as an engineer who applies mathematics to the control and use of nature's forces. Oughtred was by profession a minister of the gospel. With him the study of mathematics was a side issue, a pleasure, a recreation. Like the great French algebraist, Viète, from whom he drew much of his inspiration, he was an amateur mathematician. The word "amateur " must not be taken here in the sense of superficial or unthorough. Great Britain has had many men distinguished in science who pursued science as amateurs. Of such men Oughtred is one of the very earliest.
Florian Cajori
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