Letter:GAUSS, Charles Henry to Florian Cajori - 1898-12-21

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From GAUSS, Charles Henry (1845 - 1913)
To CAJORI, Florian (1859 - 1930)
Date: 21 Dec 1898
Family(s) Gauss
Collection Minna Gauss Reeves collection
Needs annotation: Yes
Has significant genealogical information: Yes


Columbia, Missouri. December 21st, 1898.

Prof. Florian Cajori, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Dear Sir.--

It gives me great pleasure to redeem my promise to send you the autograph letters of my Grandfather C. F. Gauss and my Aunt Theresa (his daughter). After you have used them as you wish, please return them.

Let me thank you for the interest you take in the life and work of Grandfather Gauss and for the Historical Sketch you propose making, a copy of which I would be glad to receive.

Mr [sic] brother Robert has doubtless told you nearly all of the little that is to be said of our family in this country. However as I was with my Father during his last years more than he, I had a better opportunity of speaking with him of his early life than either of us had previously had.

Father's mind was not the equal of Grandfather's but in some ways it was similar and I think I may properly say it was of much more than ordinary strength. His ability to grasp mathematics was marked. This was shown, in a measure, by his making after he was eighty years old a mental computation of the amount to which one dollar would grow if compounded annually at the rate of 4% interest from the time of Adam to the present assuming this to be six thousand years. This if in gold would make a cubic mass to large that it would require light four quadrillions of years to pass along one side of it. This is so startling as to be almost beyond belief.

He was blind at the time he did this work and the only assistance he had was to have my brother Theodore write down at intervals during the several days he was so occupied, the results that marked the different stages of his work. He did this all by ordinary arithmetic, except that he in a large measure used shorter methods of his own invention. Mr [sic] brother - since deceased - preserved the paper on which he wrote down long lines of figures which Father thought he might not be able to retain in his memory. On the sheet he made several memoranda that are interesting. For instance, Father directed him to write down the figures

    123456789057182178039
               3680824926969613857 
    123456789060863002965969613857
                x


The second line of figures was written down several days after the first and added to the upper one by my brother. Father had directed him to begin the second line of figures by placing the figure 3 under the second 7 of the upper line. In reading off the result of this addition my brother read 7 in place of 8 - marked with an x. Father detected the error, showing he was able to retain in his mind the long line of thirty figures, and my brother made the correction.

After computing the result in dollars, he next obtained the value of a cubic foot of gold as expressed in gold dollars. The only data he had were the specific gravity of gold and the weight of a gold dollar. The determination of the final result involved the operation of extracting the cube root of the total number of cubic feet and the passage of light along the side of this cube. As I said, he did this by arithmetical processes. I do not think he ever studied calculus and did not use logarithms. Aside from the fact that he used shortened methods of his own, this calculation does not prove great mathematical ability so much as it does his wonderful memory. He had my brother write down the long lines of figures for fear he might forget them, but he had to carry them in his mind in making the computations.

Another instance shows his memory of what he read - and I may say here that he was a great reader. He was a deeply pious man and had been a member of the Presbyterian Church for forty years previous to his death. One day in conversation with me he expressed his disapproval of the methods of some ministers in holding so-called "revival services" - saying they appealed largely to the feelings of their hearers and not to their reason, and that the results were bad when the excitement wore off. In support of this position he asked me to read to him from a volume of essays written by a prominent Divine. To aid me in finding the book he described it and said if I would turn to the table of contents and look half way down I would find a certain article and after finding the article I would find certain portions of it marked in pencil. I did so and found it as he said. He had not seen the book for many years and it shows how he remembered what he read.

Had Grandfather given his life to the study of Languages he doubtless would have made a name for himself. I think Father's mind was similar in this respect. After finishing his course at the Gymnasium his desire was to take up the study of Philology. His Father wished him to study Law and in a conversation asked him why he preferred languages. His answer was, the pleasure to be derived from the study Grandfather replied "Yes, but that would be small compared with the pleasure derived from the mastery of intricate problems in mathematics."

His disappointment in the choice of his life-work no doubt had much to do with his leaving home. Sometime after this, Grandfather reproached him for having given a supper to his fellow-students, the bill for which had been sent him for payment. This decided Father and without bidding the family good-bye or making any preparations for his journey, he left home, purposing [sic] to come to America. Grandfather learning of it, followed him and urged him to return, at the same time telling him he had brought his trunk and if he was determined to seek his fortune in the New World, he would furnish him with funds for the journey. His efforts were with avail and they parted on good terms.

My Father at the time was barely of age but his face was marked with a scar, received in a student's duel, which he carried to his grave.

Not long after reaching this country, not willing to depend on his Father's bounty for support, he enlisted as a private in the United States Army. With a number of recruits he was taken to Fort Snelling near St. Paul, Minnesota. This part of the country was a wilderness. The Post was in charge of General Taylor and Jefferson Davis was a young officer there. The Officers of the different companies were allowed to choose which of these men they wanted and Father was the last taken. One day an officer passing saw him studying a right-angled triangle he had drawn on the floor with chalk. the Officer inquired in surprise what he was doing. Father told him that the drill-master instructing the new soldiers how to march oblique, had directed them to step a certain number of inches diagonally, which would equal so many inches to one side and so many inches forward. He showd the officer that the hypothenuse [sic] of a right-angled triangle of the given length of sides would not equal the length of stride they were ordered to take. At another time an officer was unable to understand a Frenchman. Father offered to translate for them. He was able to speak French with such accuracy that at times he was taken for a native of France. When it became known who he was he was put in charge of the Post Library and relieved of the ordinary duties of a soldier. About the time of his discharge from the army at the end of the term of his enlistment, his oldest brother, Joseph, was sent to this Country by his Government to study our methods of Railway construction. He wrote to Father that he had brought letters of introduction to General Winfield Scott who was then very prominent in the Army and that he thought possibly he could obtain a commission in the regular Army if Father desired it. He had other plans and declined the offer.

He spent several years in the employ of the American Fur Company on the headwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and was able to speak the Sioux language with ease.

What I have said of his knowledge of the French and Sioux tongues gives point to my statement that his ability was in the direction of the study of language. A year before he died he spoke to me of his desire when a young man to make the study of Philology his lifework, and said he thought had he remained in Europe he doubtless would have been able to obtain a chair in the University, and spoke of the great difference this would have made in his life. His deep religious convictions were shown by his expression of satisfaction with his coming - because had he not done so he might never have been led to profess the religion of Christ.

Father was tall and slender while Grandfather was rather heavy-set. They both had in their youth black hair and blue eyes.

I believe it is somewhat unusual for a person of great ability in one direction to have more than ordinary ability in other ways. Grandfather was a notable exception to this. In early life he debated whether to study Philology or Mathematics and he is known for his discoveries in natural science, including electricity and astronomy almost as well as for his solution of problems in pure mathematics. It may not be so well known that he also had decided ability in Finance. he kept all of his business accounts with the most scrupulous exactness, and altho born in poverty he was able to accumulate quite a fortune for one in his position. My Father said that Grandfather would have made a most successful Minister of Finance had he been called to such a place by his Government.

What I have written will have little interest for the ordinary reader but you possibly may be interested in what I have said of my Father in so far as it gives a glimpse of the mind and temperament of Grandfather. He - that is Grandfather - did not want any of his sons to attempt mathematics for he said he did not think any of them would surpass him and he did not want the name lowered. Probably he felt the same in a measure of any other line of scientific study.

I think one is apt to ask in regard to the sons of any distinguished man - Have they inherited his power? - Certainly non of Grandfather's sons to the third generation have shown anything more than ordinary ability - unless it be my Father; his mind was unusually clear, and had he lived the life of a student he would have distinguished himself, but in a less degree than his Father.

C.H. Gauss




Source:

Typewritten copy in the private collection of the Chambless family. Transcribed to softcopy by Susan D. Chambless, 1999.


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