Maths at Strathclyde: some scenes from history

I’m grateful to Professor Stephen Wilson for circulating a history of the Department written in the mid-1970s by the former Head of Department, Professor Donald Pack. Not all of it is terribly interesting, but there are some fascinating details that demonstrate how much life at Strathclyde has — or hasn’t — changed since the original Anderson’s Institution was founded in 1796.

We learn, for example, that money was a problem right from the start:

In the Will of Professor John Anderson… there was a detailed description of the structure of the University… and one of the Chairs was to be in Mathematics. There being insufficient money for the creation of a university, Anderson’s Institution… had only one Professor… of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy.

Fortunately, Dr Garnett, the Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy, soon got fed up with teaching students who hadn’t done maths, and

Mr Lothian was appointed Professor of Mathematics on 31 October 1798 to give lectures on mathematics and geography… His courses were advertised again in 1799 and 1800.

Sadly, this happy arrangement didn’t last:

The Professors quarrelled as to who had the right to lecture on astronomical topics and the Managers decided in favour of Dr Garnett. No references to lectures by Mr Lothian after this have been found.

Having been cast into the outer darkness by the Managers, mathematics remained there until 1810. In that year a Lecturer in Mathematics, John Cross, was appointed as an assistant to the Professor in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy, Andrew Ure (Strathclyde’s prototype for Victor Frankenstein), who “had the right to dismiss him”. Mr Cross lasted for two years, and then darkness descended again.

Eventually, under pressure from the Mechanics’ Class, a new Professor of Mathematics, Robert Wallace, was appointed in 1825. He also managed two years before falling out with Dr Ure, and going off in a huff:

… by the jealousy of Dr Ure I was prevented from illustrating my lectures by apparatus of any kind; and means were even taken to see that I should not touch upon the application of a single problem to Natural Philosophy!

(Nowadays, of course, this could never happen. We’re very keen on applications, and it’s now Learning Space Support who decide what “apparatus” is available for “illustrating” our lectures.)

The next Professor, Peter Wilson, arrived in 1828, and by 1833 he had taken over the chair of Natural Philosophy too. (In your face, chemists!) He seems to have been the one who raised the bar in terms of teaching workloads:

By 1840 he was teaching 569 students in Anderson’s University, by far the largest number among the Professors: in Mathematics he taught 50, in Arithmetic 31, Geography 20, Mechanics’ Class 250, Popular Class 200, and there was a Ladies’ Geography and Arithmetic Class, with 18 enrolments, which met in the Professor’s own house at 10 Richmond Place.

Indeed. He was richly rewarded, though, with an income of “about £450 per annum, out of which he had to pay the rent of his lecture room and the cost of his apparatus”. Needless to say, the Managers gave him grief when he tried to supplement this with a bit of teaching for other institutions on the side.

Wilson’s successor, Alexander Bain, was appointed in 1845, by one of those rigorous processes that does so much credit to Human Resources types:

One of the Managers was an enthusiastic phrenologist, who, Bain says, “was satisfied with my pretensions, from his inspection of my head”.

Bain lasted a year before the students at the Mechanics’ Institution decided he was boring, and even his shapely head wasn’t enough to save him. He later became Professor of Logic and Lord Rector of the University of Aberdeen, and is known as one of the pioneers of psychology.

After this, the Professors, while no doubt estimable individuals and excellent teachers, don’t seem to have been terribly memorable. Teaching continued to move with the times, though: in the 1880s, James Blyth is complaining about his

exhausting evening work, a crowded gas-laden classroom, students not infrequently half asleep out of sheer exhaustion after their day’s labour;

while by the 1970s, Donald Pack can boast that the Department

took responsibility for the University’s first computer, a Ferranti Sirius machine gifted by Colvilles Ltd,

and that it

pioneered the use of television for teaching undergraduates. For many years the whole first year class of more than 600 students has been taught by this method.

Computers remain an important part of our lives, but the television lectures lapsed, I gather, in the 1980s. Oddly enough, though, one of the great innovations in Scottish university maths teaching during my time at Strathclyde has been… videoconferenced maths lectures. Forward to the past, colleagues; forward to the past!


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