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Detailed Department History



Mathematics instruction at West Point began in 1801. William Barron taught a few Cadets of the Artillery and Engineers some of the fundamentals and practical applications of algebra. On 16 March, 1802 Congress established the United States Military Academy at West Point. The first acting Professors of Mathematics were Captains Jared Mansfield and William Barron . They taught the first few cadets algebra, geometry, and surveying. Ferdinand Hassler and Captain Alden Partridge soon took over those professor ships and continued similar instruction until 1813.

The distinguished scientist and surveyor Andrew Ellicott became Professor of Mathematics in 1813. He was able to add instruction in trigonometry, series, conic sections, and fluxions (the rudiments of calculus). Ellicott was still serving in that position when Sylvanus Thayer became Superintendent of the Academy in 1817. Thayer had studied the military and educational systems of Europe for several years and reorganized the Academy according to the French system of the Polytechnic School of Paris. Through the leadership of Thayer and the technical expertise of Ellicott, the Department of Mathematics combined the French theories 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.

One of Thayer's significant accomplishments was to bring back from Europe numerous mathematics and science books. Thayer's book collection included many of the finest books available at that time in Europe. His books provided a solid foundation for the USMA library to build upon. The Department Heads during the rest of the 19th century were able to increase the size and quality of the collection by maintaining close ties with mathematicians in France and England and obtaining the latest French and English books on subjects in undergraduate mathematics. Today, the West Point Library has one of the finest collections of pre-20th century mathematics books in the world. A complete bibliography of this collection is being compiled for publication in the near future.

During his trip to Europe, Colonel Thayer recruited the famous French mathematician and Minister for the French government under Napoleon Claude Crozet who brought to America expertise in Descriptive Geometry (engineering drawing of the 20th century), advanced mathematics, and fortification engineering. It was Crozet and other professors at USMA that first used the blackboard as the primary tool of instruction. Crozet had been captured by the Russians and while a prisoner had taught mathematics to the Russian royal family.

Ellicott's best student, Charles Davies became the professor of Mathematics in 1823. Davies was a prolific author. He translated several French works by Bourdon, Lacroix, and Legrendre and wrote over 30 textbooks in mathematics and many journal articles. His textbooks were used in schools throughout the country at all the levels from grade school to college. He had tremendous influence on the entire educational system of America throughout the 19th century. It was during Davies time as the Head of the Department of Mathematics that calculus was taught to all cadets and later used in the development of the science and engineering courses. One student he had little success in teaching was Edgar Allen Poe. As a national leader in mathematics education, Davies gave numerous lectures and wrote paper on this subject.

Albert Church succeeded Davies and improved and developed the curriculum. He also wrote several textbooks. Church's tenure as Department Head was remarkable in many ways. He was Professor of Mathematics at USMA from 1837-1878. Along with fellow department heads in science and engineering, William Bartlett and Dennis H. Mahan, Church presided over a curriculum that produced many successful mathematicians and scientists. He had little luck in teaching James Whistler who dropped out of the Academy. West Point graduates Hoarce 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. S. Naval Academy, Geneva College, the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Mississippi, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Columbia, the Virginia Military Institute, Cooper Institute, and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. The West Point model of undergaduate mathematics education was exported throughout the nation by capable individuals such as these.

Edgar Bass succeeded Church. Bass continued the practice started by his predecessors Davies and Church of authoring mathematical textbooks. His book on the calculus improved and modernized the earlier works of Davies and Church. Wright Edgerton chaired the Department as it entered the 20th century and celebrated its centennial in 1902. Edgerton and his successor Charles Echols revitalized the mathematics curriculum. Echols visited schools in Europe and began using new teaching methods at the Academy.

It was not always easy to maintain a solid program in mathematics. There were often outside influences that fought against the Academy math, science, engineering emphasis. One noted attack was launched by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. He wrote to the Secretary of War, "It seems to me a very great misfortune to lay so much stress upon mathematics in the curriculum at West Point. ... I should like to have this matter taken up seriously. ... In the event of war, I should care no more for their mathematical training than for their knowledge of chess or whist." The classroom hours devoted to mathematics were reduced in the spring of 1908 and again in 1911.

During the professorship of Harris Jones, West Point entered its first competition in mathematics. A mathematics challenge match between Harvard and USMA (USMA/Harvard Math Competition) was conducted in the spring of 1933. The two competing teams made up of 12 second-year students took a test written and grades by the president of the Mathematics Association of America. The West Point "mathletes" defeated Harvard in the competition that was the precursor to the national Putnam Competition. A few years later in 1944, the slide rule was used in all plebe mathematics classes.

Colonel William Bessel replaced Jones as Head of the Department in 1947. During Bessell's tenure, the old riding stable was converted into the Thayer Hall academic building. Under Bessell's direction, the mathematics classrooms at West Point were modernized with overhead projectors and mechanical computers. Bessell introduced a course in probability and statistics into the core curriculum and began a limited electives program for advanced students. He was also instrumental in getting faculty members educated with advanced degrees from civilian universities and starting a computer center at West Point.

Bessell transferred control of the Department of Mathematics to the capable hands of Charles Nicholas in 1959. Nicholas had previously served as one of the organizers for the Central Intelligence Agency. He wrote a rigorous and comprehensive mathematics textbook that cadets used in their entire core mathematics program. He was able to adapt the USMA mathematics program to keep up with the increasing demands of modern science and engineering.

Professors John Dick and Jack Pollin guided the Department during the 1970s and 1980s. Their leadership kept the Academy at the forefront of undergraduate mathematics education. The calculator was introduced and used in all mathematics classes. Curriculum changes that provided new courses and the opportunities for cadets to major in mathematics and to study operations research were introduced.

David Cameron was the Head of the Department from 1985-1988. Colonel Cameron directed a redesign of the curriculum to take advantage of the increase in the number of electives in the cadet program and the use of computers in the classroom. Under his guidance a mathematics consulting element was established that allowed faculty members and students to support the research needs of the Army.

Colonel Frank Giordano was the Head of the Department from 1988-1995. Colonel Giordano modernized the mathematics classrooms with mobile classroom computers with overhead display devises and advanced computational software. In 1990 the Department introduced a new mathematics course in discrete mathematics to the core curriculum. The Department also changed its name in 1990 to the Department of Mathematical Sciences to reflect broader interests in applied mathematics, operations research, and computation.

David Arney was the Head of the Department from 1995 to 2001. His areas of research interest in mathematics included applying mathematics to solving problems in science, numerical computing, the theory of numbers and their properties, network science and the history of mathematics. His teaching interests include using computers, writing, and interdisciplinary applications in the mathematics curriculum. He authored over 100 journal articles presenting the results of his research in technical journals. He lectured on his mathematical results and provided workshops on curriculum reform and the use of technology in teaching and learning mathematics at universities and colleges throughout the country.

From 2001-2006, the twentieth Department Head, Gary Krahn, moved West Point's mathematics instruction through its bicentennial. Krahn's legacy was embedding modeling in all the core courses and formulizing undergraduate research as a viable component in the mathematics curriculum.

Through the leadership of Michael Phillips, the twenty-first Department Head who served from 2006-2016, the Department built outreach programs and focused on educational prinicples to ensure long-term learning and success.

The twenty-second Department Head, Steven Horton, served in that position from 2016 - 2018 and served a total of 22 years in the Department.  Horton was the initiator of many of the strategic changes supervised by the past four deparment heads including the Network Science Program, the Network Science Minor, Cadet Leader Development Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Program, the Center for Data Analysis and Statistics, and the Statistics Minor (the first minor offered at West Point).
The current USMA Department Head is Tina Hartley.
The Department still remains in the forefront with its effortsin curricular and pedagogy reform.  Overall, the Department of Mathematical Sciences has had great influence on mathematics eductaion in America throughout its history.

The Department of Mathematical Sciences, USMA, is very proud of the accomplishments of its faculty members and students. The USMA mathematics program has had great influence on mathematics education in America throughout its history. A complete history of the Department was published on the bicentennial of the Academy in 2002.




The Centennial of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904.

Cajori, Florian, The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890.

Arney, David C., "Sources: Resources in the History of Mathematics at the United States Military Academy" Historia Mathematica, Nov 1988, pp. 368-369.

Arney, D.C., Ball, R., Chellman, W., Ebel, W. and Vozzo, M., "Projects: History of the Department of Mathematics of the United States Military Academy" Historia Mathematica, Nov 1988.

Albree, Joseph, Arney, David C., and Rickey, Frederick, "Bibliography of USMA Mathematics Books" Technical Report, 1991.

Arney, David C. and Rosenstein, George, "The Harvard-United States Military Academy Mathematics Competition of 1933: Genesis of the William Lowell Putnam Competition" presentation at the MAA Annual Meeting, Phoenix, Arizona, 1989.