Two Illinois State University math professors doing research into the history of school math recently found another leaf of Abraham Lincoln’s workbook at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The professors, Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements, said they assumed the existence of the paper was common knowledge. They believed it was part of the 10 pages of Lincoln’s workbook, or cyphering book, already known to historians. It wasn’t until they started to put the work in order that they realized it’s an 11th piece of the book.
Clements said the leaf is important because it shows what Lincoln knew at an early age and is an example of curriculum. He said Lincoln came from a poor family and at the time, the family probably only had three books: the Bible, an almanac and this book.
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“These cyphering books weren’t just prepared, they were the documentary evidence of what actually went on when you studied in school,” Clements said.
An associated document at the library written by Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, confirms the leaf was prepared by Lincoln. It’s believed to be from about 1825 and is part of the oldest surviving manuscript from the nation’s 16th president. Lincoln would have been about 16 years old at the time.
Ellerton said it has been well documented that Lincoln worked out math problems on any available surface in the home and the cyphering book shows Lincoln was good. “He knew his mathematics and we have followed through every line of the calculation and he clearly knew what he was doing there,” Ellerton said.
Ellerton said she and Clements have been working on both the history of school mathematics and Lincoln studies for the past four years. She said the other 10 pieces of the cyphering book are scattered all over the country, including at Yale University, Columbia University, Brown University, the University of Chicago, and at the Chicago Historical Society.
The research on Lincoln’s oldest manuscript will be published as a chapter in a new book on extraordinary cyphering books in 2014.