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COLLECTION Identifier: HUC 8782.514

Mathematical theses, 1782-1839.


The mathematical theses consist of equations and drawings which illustrate the equations. At the time of their creation, the purpose of these finely executed documents on large sheets of paper was to demonstrate a student's mastery of one or more mathematical concepts, yet the enduring value of many of the them lies in the fact that they are works of art.


  • Creation: 1782-1839.


Fragile Material Restriction

Access to thesis originals is restricted due to their size and fragility. Please consult digital copies. For permission to view originals, please consult reference staff.


16 cubic feet (406 broadsides)

At the time of their creation, the purpose of these documents was to demonstrate a student's mastery of one or more mathematical concepts by applying math to a problem in the real world. However, the enduring value of many of the theses lies in the fact that they are works of art.

As a group, the theses demonstrate a change, in society at large, from the concerns of the late 18th century to those of the industrial revolution. As the years progress, the fields to which the mathematical concepts are applied change. The earliest theses are chiefly concerned with astronomy,linear perspective, and surveying. Fields of interest that emerge in later theses include navigation,light, and engineering topics such as mechanics,railroads, and steam engines.

A number of theses include drawings that employ linear perspective. Architectural historian James O'Gorman has suggested that these may be the earliest evidence of formal instruction in the use of perspective in North America.

For more information, see O'Gorman, James F. On the boards : drawings by nineteenth-century Boston architects. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.O'Gorman, James F. The perspective of Anglo-American architecture : notes on some graphic attempts at three-dimensional representation in the colonies and early Republic. Philadelphia: Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1995.


The mathematical theses consist of equations and drawings which illustrate the equations. These are finely executed documents on large sheets of paper. Frequently in color, the drawings are typically pen-and-ink. The drawings frequently depict astronomical events or the buildings and lands of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harvard University.

While most mathematical theses are presumed to be created by Harvard students, an unknown percentage were professionally inscribed by a local scribe. Notations in early nineteenth-century student account books indicate students allocated personal funds for paper and for local scribes to complete their mathematical theses. Mistakes were often scraped away with a sharp tool, then the paper was burnished to prepare it for additional writing or design. If the ink had saturated the paper and scraping was not effective, white chalk was sometimes pounced over the mistake to mask it.

Once the mathematical theses were completed, it is unknown if or when the drawings were displayed at Harvard before being transferred to the Harvard University Archives. Most of the mathematical theses have paper guards indicating that they were bound in a volume at some point. Several mathematical theses have small pin holes or the arcs of discoloration or impressions from the pin head in their corners indicating that they may have been displayed publicly. A significant number of the theses have orange shellac residue on the recto and/or verso which may have been the result of exhibition or storage in stacked piles.


The theses are grouped by class year of the author. The overall order is chronological.

Online access

All the theses have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany the detailed description of each thesis.

General note

This document last updated 2022 April 7.

Processing Information

This finding aid document contains the numbering and description of the mathematical theses published by Henry Badger in 1888. Badger transcribed the text on the thesis and included explanatory text in square brackets. Badger also noted the student's class affiliation. Dimensions recorded for a microfilming project are added to the list below.Mathematical theses of junior and senior classes, 1782-1839 / by Henry Badger. (Cambridge, Mass. : Library of Harvard University, 1888.)

In 2010, the mathematical theses were surface cleaned and physically stabilized by conservators Christina Amato, Bill Hanscom, and Adam Novak from the Harvard University Libraries' Weissman Preservation Center. Colin Lukens rehoused the mathematical theses in individual folders and Jennifer Pelose updated this finding aid in July 2010.

Preservation and description of the Harvard University Mathematical Theses was supported, in part, by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Harvard University. Mathematical theses, 1782-1839 : an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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