Geometrical Objects: Architecture and the Mathematical Sciences 1400-1800

Museum of the History of Science and Worcester College, University of Oxford 19-20 March 2007

Recent scholarship in the history of science has underscored the mutually reinforcing relationship between “high” and “low,” or theoretical and practical, forms of early modern mathematics. As many historians have shown, mathematicians of the period were deeply involved in problems of instrument making, surveying, engineering, gunnery, and navigation. At the same time, the practitioners of these arts were increasingly concerned with questions of higher mathematics and natural philosophy as they pertained to the advancement of their craft. In fact, practitioners appear to have provided an important intellectual and technical context for many of the period’s mathematical discoveries – an essential development, historians now maintain, in the larger history of the “scientific revolution.”

Architecture, too, was a “mathematical” art, almost wholly dependent on geometrical or arithmetic operations of some form or another. The process of design itself – insofar as it required the application of consistent proportional rules – was largely defined by them, as were many other basic tasks. Surveying, cost estimates, bookkeeping, and even the use of routine graphic techniques – perspective, scaled orthogonal drawing, and stereotomic diagrams – all entailed a certain amount of mathematical training. Nor were these skills limited to the design of buildings. Architects also used calculations in mapping cities, laying out fortifications, and planning hydraulic projects for gardens, dams, and canals. Military and civil engineering had long been part of the Vitruvian tradition.

This symposium seeks to explore issues and questions raised by this situation. To what extent can the architect be considered a “mathematical practitioner”? What role did architectural practice and building technologies play in the broader evolution of mathematics? How did architects see themselves in relation to mathematicians and scientists? What are the documented cases of contact or conflict between these groups?

Attendance is free but registration essential. For further information and a list of speakers see