Spanning 132 acres in Oakland and boasting enough students to nearly fill PNC Park, the University of Pittsburgh has come a long way from its start 226 years ago in a log cabin.
Until recently, the school lacked any archival record of those humble origins -- beyond its charter -- after Pittsburgh's Great Fire of 1845 destroyed any record of the institution's infancy.
But with the recently announced acquisition of a long-ago student's 162-page mathematics notebook filled with faded calligraphy -- digitized and available online -- Pitt now has a valuable link to its past, when it was the Pittsburgh Academy.
"This is our only tangible piece of evidence at the time and this [notebook] is from 15 years after the founding of the academy," University Archivist Marianne Kasica said.
Joseph H. Larwill's notebook was acquired by the University of Pittsburgh archivists in the university's Archives Service Center in Point Breeze.
Mr. Larwill, a student at the Pittsburgh Academy from 1801 to 1803, went on to survey Wayne, Stark and Columbiana counties in Ohio for the U.S. General Land Office and drew the original map of Fort Meigs, a fortification in Northwest Ohio that was used during the War of 1812.
The discolored, torn pages of the notebook contain notes on geometry, interest calculations, inverse proportion and fractions and will be kept in a custom-made, burgundy box.
"It is exciting because it shows what was being taught then," Ms. Kasica said. "Because the university was founded by Presbyterian ministers, university archivists can presume everyone was learning to read, write and learn about the Bible. But, since there were no course descriptions, this is practical information."
The university in November 2011 purchased the notebook from the collector -- an uncommon move, as the Archives Service Center does not have any funds allocated specifically for acquisitions.
Pitt refused to disclose the private collector's identity and how much the university paid for the notebook.
For the past 18 months, the center has been working to prepare the storage of the book and digitize it -- necessary steps to prepare the archive for further research purposes.
Archives such as this help researchers understand the university's infancy as well as the city's, said David Grinnell, a Pitt reference and access archivist.
"In contrast to modern perceptions of the University of Pittsburgh and the City of Pittsburgh today, the Larwill notebook helps us to remember that both the university and the city once had humble beginnings," he said.
At this time, the population of the Borough of Pittsburgh was around 2,000. The Pittsburgh Academy was simply a small school under the direction of Rev. John Taylor, an Episcopalian minister, Mr. Grinnell said.
The notebook helps provide insight into what life in Pittsburgh was like at the time as Pittsburgh began to develop amenities that more advanced cities like Philadelphia had, such as institutions of higher education, said Anne Madarasz, museum division director at the Heinz History Center.
"I think what is interesting is that it disproves the myths that Pittsburgh was mostly a frontier," Ms. Madarasz said. "I think this is somewhat an unusual piece that does not advance understanding of mathematics but does advance understanding of what the city was like at that time."
Claire Aronson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1964.