Karpinski, Louis Charles

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(b. Rochester, New York, 5 August 1878; d. Winter Haven, Florida, 25 January 1956)

history of mathematics, cartography

Karpinski was the son of Henry H. Karpinski, who had emigrated from Warsaw, and of Mary Louise Engesser, from Gebweiler in Alsace. Karpinski completed high school in Oswego, New York, in 1894 and received a teacher’s diploma from Oswego State Normal School in 1897. After teaching in the normal department of Berea College, he attended Cornell University, from which he received an A.B. in 1901.

From 1901 to 1903 Karpinski attended Kaiser Wilhelm American College of the University of Strasbourg, where after submitting the thesis “Über die Verteilungen der quadratischen Reste” to a committee composed of Heinrich Weber, Theodor Reye, and Ferdinand Braun, he received the doctorate of natural philosophy. From 1903 to 1904 Karpinski was in charge of physics and chemistry at Oswego Normal college and of arithmetic in its practice school. Besides teaching in summer schools at New York University in 1904 and at the Chautauqua Institution (1905-1908), Karpinski wrote several reviews and articles, and made speeches on pedagogic topics.

Karpinski became an instructor in mathematics at the University of Michigan in 1904. He was subsequently promoted to assistant professor (1910), associate professor (1914), and professor (1919), and became professor emeritus upon his retirement in 1948. In 1905 Karpinski married Grace Maude Woods of Lockport, New York; they had six children.

Karpinski’s productive interest in the history of science dates from the academic year 1909-1910, which he spent as a Teachers College fellow and university extension lecturer at Columbia University. His collabortion with David Eugene Smith resulted in The Hindu-Arabic Numerals (1911), still the authoritative work on this topic. His early research was based on manuscript algorism and algebrates that he located in European libraries. He elucidated works by Jordanus de Nemore, scarobosco, Robert of Chester, al-Khwerizmi, and Abu Kāmil.

During a sabbatical year (1926-1927) Karpinski photographed manuscript pertaining to American history in archives in France, Spain, and Portugal. Copies of these manuscripts were sold to many American research libraries. This interest in maps led to other activities, one of which was the collecting of atlases and maps, which he sold to Yale University. This collection is now acknowledged as one of the bases of Yale’s Thorne Collection of Cartography and Geography. He also prepared for the Michigan Historical Commission the Bibliography of the Printed Maps of Michigan, 1804-1880 and the accompanying Historical Atlas of the Great Lakes and Michigan, both of which appeared in 1931. Evidence of his bibliographic interests appears in a number of journal articles and especially in his definitive Bibliography of Mathematical Works Printed in America Through 1850.

In 1928 Karpinski was elected a membre effect if of the Comité International d’Histoire des Sciences and in 1937 was the American representative to the Descartes Tercentenary held in Paris. He was a charter member of the Mathematical Association of America and of the History of Science Society, of which he was elected president in 1943. His interest in the history of mathematics and in photographs led to his preparation of the slides that were projected in the hall of science of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933. Karpinski was also an associate editor of Scripta mathematica, and under his direction seven students wrote theses in the history of mathematics.


I. Original Works. Karpinski wrote nearly 200 publications; his original historical papers can largely be found in American Mathematical Monthly, Archeion (Archivio di storia della scienza), Bibliotheca mathematica, Isis, and Scripta mathematica, His books are The Hindu-Arabic Numerals (Boston, 1911), written with David Eugene Smith; Robert of Chester’s Latin Translation of the Algebra of Al-Khowarizmi, With an Introduction, Critical Notes, and an English Version, University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series, XI, pt 1 (New York, 1915); Unified Mathematics (Boston, 1918; rev., 1922), written with Harry Y.Benedict and John W.Calhoun; and The History of Arthmetic (Chicago, 1925; repr. New York, 1965).

Other works are Nicomachus of Gerasa, Introduction to Arithmetic, Martin Luther D’Ooge, trans., University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series, XVI (New York, 1926; Ann Arbor, 1936; 3rd ed., 1946), with studies of Greek arithmetic by Frank Egleston Robbins and L.C. Karpinski; Bibliography of the Printed Maps of Michigan, 1804-1880 (Lansting, 1931), including discussions of Michigan maps and mapmakers by William Lee Jenks; Historical Atlas of the Great Lakes and Michigan (Lansing, 1831); Bibilography of Mathematical Works Printed in America Through 1850 (Ann Arbor, 1940); and Early Military Books in the University of Michigan Libraries (Ann Arbor, 1941), written with Thomas M.Spaulding.

II. Secondary Literature A picture of Karpinski as chairman of Section L and as vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is in Scientific Monthly, 50 (Jan. 1940), 90. See also Phillip S. Jones, “Louis Charles Karpinski, Historian of Mathematics and Cartography,” in Historia mathematica,3 (1976), 185-202. Further data and memorabilia are in the Michigan Historical Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Phillip S. Jones