About the Department of Mathematical Sciences

by Brigadier General (Retired) David C. Arney, the nineteenth Professor and Department Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, 1995-2001

The Department of Mathematical Sciences, USMA, has had a rich history of contributing to the education of cadets as confident problem solvers and of developing its faculty as effective teachers, leaders, and researchers. The story of mathematical education at West Point is full of interest: faculty curriculum developments, teaching methods and tools, and technological equipment. Many of the Department's advances have been exported outside the Academy to be utilized by other civilian and military educational institutions.

The beginnings of the Department

The actual teaching of mathematics at West Point dates from even before the Academy was established. In 1801, George Baron taught a few Cadets of Artillery and Engineers some of the fundamentals and applications of algebra. The Academy at West Point was instituted by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson on 16 March 1802. The first acting Professors of Mathematics were Captains Jared Mansfield and William Barron. They taught the first few cadets algebra, geometry, and surveying.

Leaders of the Nation

Faculty from the Department have been notable military leaders for the country. Robert E. Lee was a standout student-instructor in the Department, Omar Bradley served as an Instructor for four years, Harris Jones and William Bessell were Deans of the Academic Board at USMA for a total of 15 years, and Department Heads Harris Jones, William Bessell, Charles Nicholas, John Dick, and Jack Pollin served impressively during two world wars.

The unique technical curriculum in place at the Academy during the middle of the 19th century produced many successful mathematicians and scientists for the country at large. West Point graduates Horace Webster, Edward Courtenay, Alexander Bache, James Clark, Francis Smith, Richard Smith, Henry Lockwood, Henry Eustis, Alexander Stewart, and William Peck filled positions as professors of mathematics or college presidents at other schools such as the U. 5. Naval Academy, Geneva College, University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, University of Mississippi, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Columbia, Virginia Military Institute, Cooper Institute, and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Two mathematics department heads became college presidents after leaving USMA; Alden Partridge founded and became the first president of Norwich University, and David Douglass served as president of Kenyon College in Ohio for four years. Jared Mansfield was appointed surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory, and Ferdinand Hassler became superintendent of the United States Coastal Survey. The West Point model of undergraduate mathematics education was exported throughout the nation by capable individuals such as these.


While the faculty at USMA has been primarily military, the Department has benefited from civilian visiting professors since 1976. As part of the goal for civilianization of 25% of the faculty by 2002, beginning in 1992, the Department established in 1994 a Center for Faculty Development in Mathematics. This Center establishes faculty development models and curricula and provides for the development of the "Davies Fellows", who serve as rotating civilian faculty members.

Curricular Developments

After Thayer studied the military and educational systems of Europe, he reorganized the Academy according to the French system of the Ecole Polytechnic. The Department of Mathematics faculty (which included as Professor the distinguished scientist and surveyor Andrew Ellicon, and the famous French mathematician Claude Crozet whom Thayer recruited during his European trip to bring to USMA and America his expertise in Descriptive Geometry, advanced mathematics, and fortifications engineering) combined the French theoretical mathematics program with the practical methods of the English to establish a new model for America's program of undergraduate mathematics. This program of instruction in Mathematics grew over several decades and was emulated by many other schools in the country. The initial purpose of the Military Academy was to educate and train military engineers. Sylvanus Thayer, the "Father of the Military Academy" and Superintendent from 1817-1833, instituted a four-year curriculum with supporting pedagogy to fulfill this purpose. Thayer's curriculum was very heavy in mathematics; from Thayer's time to the late 1800's, cadets took the equivalent of 54 credit hours of mathematics courses. The topics covered in these courses were algebra, trigonometry, geometry, descriptive geometry (engineering drawing), analytic geometry, and calculus. Over the years, the entering cadets became better prepared, and fewer of the elementary subjects were needed. During Davies' tenure (1823-37), calculus was introduced as a requirement for all cadets, and was used in the development of science and engineering courses. The time allotted for the mathematics curriculum decreased to 48 credit hours by 1940, and to 30 credit hours by 1950. During the 1940's, courses in probability & statistics and in differential equations were introduced into the core curriculum, and a limited electives program was started for advanced students. In the 1960's, department head Charles Nicholas (previously one of the organizers of the Central Intelligence Agency) wrote a rigorous and comprehensive mathematics textbook (the "Green Death") that cadets used during their entire core mathematics program. With this text, he was able to adapt the mathematics program to keep up with the increasing demands of modem science and engineering. In the 1970's, Academy-wide curricular changes provided opportunities for cadets to major in mathematics. During the 1980's, a mathematical sciences consulting element was established that allowed faculty members and cadets to support the research needs of the Army. This type of research activity continues today in the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) Mathematical Sciences Center of Excellence and in the Operations Research Center (ORCEN). In 1990 the Department introduced a new core mathematics curriculum which included a course in discrete dynamical systems, with embedded linear algebra. In that same year, the department changed its name to the Department of Mathematical Sciences to reflect broader interests in applied mathematics, operations research, and computation.

Technological Developments 

USMA has a long history of technological innovation in the classroom. It was Crozet and other professors at USMA in the 1820's who were the first professors in the nation to use the blackboard as the primary tool of instruction. In 1944, the slide rule was issued to all cadets and was used in all plebe mathematics classes. During William Bessell's tenure (1947-1959), the mathematics classrooms in Thayer Hall (a converted riding stable) were modernized with overhead projectors and mechanical computers. Bessell was also instrumental in establishing a computer center at West Point. The hand held calculator was issued to all cadets beginning in 1975, and pre-configured computers were issued to all cadets beginning in 1986.