As I flipped through the remarkably sturdy pages of Joseph H. Larwill's 19th century workbook at the University of Pittsburgh's archives in North Point Breeze, it occurred to me I wouldn't have wanted to sit next to this guy.
Young Mr. Larwill's penmanship was impeccable. He knew it, too. He kept signing his name throughout the thing, with a swashbuckler's J to start things off and then this big looping L to begin his surname. His signature only became bolder and more intricate as time went on.
You don't have to be a handwriting analyst to know that this young man studying higher mathematics in 1801 expected big things of himself. Mr. Larwill went on to survey three counties in Ohio, oversee the laying of a road from Canton to Mansfield and draw the map of an Ohio fort used in the War of 1812. Then he went into politics to rest.
He couldn't have expected anyone to ever go over his notes online, as one can do through Pitt's digital library. But university archivists, who acquired his well-worn book from a private collector in 2011, are excited by the find. It predates any university document, apart from the school's charter, by nearly half a century.
With my interest piqued online, I drove across town to check the goods in a big, brick, climate-controlled warehouse in the East End.
"We built it a nice acid-free box, so it's very happy," university archivist Marianne Kasica said.
This comes at the very beginning of the university's story, before anyone knew there'd be a university story to tell. Mr. Larwill was a student at the Pittsburgh Academy between 1801 and 1803. That little school inside a log house in what's now Downtown ultimately grew into the academic complex that towers over Oakland.
Academic historians can use Mr. Larwill's notes to see how mathematics was taught in a frontier school. Ms. Kasica said they knew the academy had classes in religion, literature, Greek and Latin but didn't know what else was taught, or how it was taught, until this book came their way.
The book can intrigue its viewer before it's even opened. The battered cover is adorned with eclectic symbols ranging from what appears to be a horned devil to a cherub hugging a clock. I got the feeling that this young man found the illustrations way cool, or whatever kids said then. But Mr. Larwill really came alive for me about five pages in, where he worked on this problem:
"If a footman performs a journey in 3 days when the days are 10 hour [sic] long, how many days will he require of 12 hours long to go the same journey[?]"
Mr. Larwill did some computations and then wrote "4 days."
Hah! Where's my red quill pen? You must have been drinking mead, young man. It's not going to take a footman more days to travel if he's putting in more time each day. The correct answer has to be 2 1/2 days. (3 days of 10 hours = 30 hours. Divide 30 by 12 and the answer is 2 1/2.)
In your face, Surveyor Boy! The road between Canton and Mansfield must not be very straight. Heh, heh.
I kid. Truth is many problems in this book were beyond my comprehension. Others who have perused it have used words like "rigorous" and "demanding" to describe the work, and I have no argument. It's oddly comforting, though, to know that word problems were a common form of academic torture even then.
This was so long ago Americans could still use English shillings as currency and as factors in their schoolwork. That made me wonder how far back these kinds of arithmetic exercises go. Did medieval tots get questions that began, "If six men convicted of high treason are taken to the gallows and each is drawn and quartered ..."?
I'll leave that question to more learned historians. I'm just privileged to have briefly touched schoolwork that was turned in 212 years ago. I now await word on whether any "Pittsburgh Academy" sweatshirts or souvenir mead mugs survive.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.