Woepcke, Franz

views updated


(b. Dessau, Germany, 6 May 1826; d. Paris, France, 25 March 1864)

mathematics, Oriental studies.

Woepcke was the son of Ernst Woepcke, the Wittenberg postmaster, and Karolina Chapon. He studied mathematics and physics at Berlin from 1843 to 1847, receiving the ph. D. magna cum laude in the latter year for a work on sundials in antiquity. In addition to pure mathematics, he was particularly interested in its history, a subject that Humboldt encouraged him to pursue.1 In the midnineteenth century very little was known of the Arab contribution to the development of mathematics. Many Latin translations from the Arabic had existed since the twelfty century; but the texts themselves were not accessible, and further research was thus effectively blocked.2 Woepcke therefore went to Bonn in 1848 to learn Arabic.3 After qualifying as Privatdozent in the spring of 1850, he went to Leiden, where there were many Arabic manuscripts, and in May of the same year, to Paris, then the center of Oriental studies in Europe.4 In Paris he studied Persian (under Julius von Mohl) and Sanskrit (under P. O. Foucaux), as well as mathematics (under J. Liouville).

Woepcke interrupted his stay in Paris only from 1856 to 1858, when he taught mathematics and physics at the French Gymnasium in Berlin. He resigned his post because it left him no time for research. His tireless work on Arabic and Persian manuscripts enabled Woepcke to publish some thirty texts.5 His edition of al-Khayyāmī’s Algebra, which appeared in 1851, was followed in 1853 by a selection from al-Karajī’s Algebra. In 1861 and 1863 Woepcke worked on manuscripts in Oxford and in London. He was obliged to return to Paris in December 1863 because his health, always weak, was failing rapidly. He died at the age of thirty-seven and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

Woepcke’s contemporaries praised him as modest but confident in his own judgment and as an enemy of all superficiality.6 He valued only facts and left the working out of unproved conclusions to others.

A member of many learned societies, Woepcke made an outstanding contribution to the knowledge of Eastern contributions in the history of mathematics. Although he investigated many specific problems in various fields, his studies centered on the algebra of the Arabs (its symbolism and the determination of its Greek and Indian components) and on the Indian and Arab influence on the West (the spread of Hindu numerals and methods and the sources of the work of Leonardo Fibonacci).7 He also attempted to reconstruct lost texts of Apollonius and Euclid on the basis of Arab manuscripts.8

Woepcke’s own mathematical research dealt mainly with curves function theory. He also translated into French works by J. Steiner (central curves) and by Weierstrass (theory of Abelian functions). Because of Woepcke’s early death, many of his editional projects–for which he had already copied or translated the Arabic texts–were left unfinished or were continued by others.9 Among the material that came into the possession of Boncompagni were 174 letters and a codex with twenty-five unpublished works, including selections from texts, translations, and notes.10


1. In 1851 Woepcke translated Humboldt’s Über die did verschiedenen Völkern üblichen Systeme von Zahlzeichen (1829) into French.

2. Exceptions were the Algebra of al-Khwārizmī, edited by Frederic Rosen (London, 1831), and the Jawāmi of alFarghānī edited by Jacob Golius (Amsterdam, 1669).

3. He studied Arabic under G. W. F. Freytag and J. Gildemeister, as well as astronomy under F. W. A. Argelander.

4. Among the scholars who had worked there were Silvestre de Sacy. J. J. Sédillot, and L. A. Sédillot. See G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I, 665, 667, 717; 11, 622.

5. See E. Narducci, “Intorno alla vita ed agli scritti di Francesco Woepcke,” 123.

6.Ibid., 123 ff.

7. His investigations include Leonardo Fibonacci’s solution of the third-degree eqution, two Arab approximation methods for determining sine 1°, Indian methods for calculating the sine, ancient methods of multiplication, and astrolabes. On Woepcke’s works see Sarton, op. cit., I, 600 (Thābit ibn Qurra), 663 (number symbols in a MS of 970), 667 (Abu’l-Wafā’), 718 (abū ja ͑far ibn al-Husain), 719 (al-Karkhī); II, 401 (Muhammad ibn al-Husain); III, 1765 (al-Qalasādī), 1766 (spread of Hindu numerals and algebraic symsbolism).

8.Ibid., I, 154, 174; also R. C. Archibald, Euclid’a Book on Divisions of Figures With a Restoration Based on Woepcke’s Text and on the practica Geometriae of Leonardo Pisano (Cambridge, 1915), 9–13.

9. Baron de Slane (see Sarton, I, 665; II, 401) edited works on al-Qūhī, al-sijzī, and Muhammad ibn al-Husain (dealing with universal compasses for all conic sections); and Aristide Marre (see Sarton, II, 1000) edited the Talkhīş of Ibn al-Bannā· -for Woepcke’s preliminary work on this text see Narducci, op. cit., 129, 151.

10. See Narducci, op. cit., 151 f.


I. Original Works. There are complete bibliographies in Narducci (see below), 133–152: and in Poggendorff, II, 1353–1354, and III, 1458. His writings include Disquisitiones archaeologico-mathematicae circa solaria veterum (Berlin, 1847), his doctoral dissertation; L’Algèbre d’Omar Alkhayyāmī (Paris, 1851); Extrait du Fakhrī, Traité d’algébre par Aboū Bekr Mohammed ben Athaçan Alkarkhī (Paris, 1853); Sur l’introduction de l’arithmétique indienne en Occident, (Rome, 1859); and “Recherches sur plusieurs ouvrages de Léonard de Pise. . .et sur les rapports qui existent entre ces ouvrages et les travaux mathématiques des arabes,” in Atti dell’Accademia pontificia dei Nuovi Lincei, 10 (1856–1857), 236–248; 12 (1858–1859), 399–438; and 14 (1860–1861), 211–227, 241–269, 301–356.

II. Secondary Literature. See J. Fück, Die arabischenstudien in Europa (Leipzig, 1955). 204; E. Narducci, “Intorno alla vita ed agli scritti di Francesco Woepcke,” in Bullettino di bibliografia e di storia delle scienze matematiche e fisiche, 2 (1869), 119–152; and G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, 3 vols. (Baltimore, 1927–1948).

Kurt Vogel