Marveling At The Historical

Math Oldies But Goodies

  • About This Blog

    This blog is mostly about math procedures in textbooks dated from about 1825-1900. I’m writing about them because some of the procedures are exquisite and much more powerful, and simpler, than some of the procedures in current text books. Really!

    I update this blog as frequently as possible ... every 2-3 days. And, if you are a lover of old texts and unique procedures, you might want to talk to me about them, at I’m not an antiquarian; the books I have are dusty, musty, brown-paged scribbled-in texts written by authors with insights into how math works. Unfortunately, most of their procedures have vanished. They’ve been overcome by more traditional perspectives, but you have to realize that at that time, they were teaching the traditional methods.

The Importance of a Clearly Stated Algorithm

Posted by mark schwartz on August 22, 2016


I posted a piece earlier in this blog titled Sheldon’s Compound Proportions. It describes what Sheldon labels the “cause and effect” method for solving compound proportions, which as far as I can tell, aren’t in todays’ texts. His work was in 1886. You might want to take a look at his idea because this posting talks about other compound proportion procedures at that time and I did it to emphasize the importance of a clearly stated procedure for doing an operation.

The Story

I strolled through my collection of old texts and in quite a few of them found the same prescription for solving compound proportions not using cause and effect. I picked 5 which cover about a 20 year span from 1864 to 1883. They all have the same procedure and what I suspect is that it was the established and accepted solution method at that time. As in todays’ texts, it was just a simple matter of “borrowing” a basic algorithm from someone else’s work. There are other texts of that era which reference Sheldon’s cause and effect method and a few of them introduce it along with the procedure I’ll cite below.

The point is that his method is a much clearer statement of how to handle the information in a compound proportion problem. Further, what I’m suggesting is that we should carefully examine some of our current traditional algorithms to see if the reason students have trouble with them is because of the way they are worded and presented. For example, finding the lowest common denominator (LCD) in order to add/subtract fractions doesn’t require the extended way it’s been typically taught. In fact, I have seen some texts introducing a method which doesn’t require finding an LCD at all. Certain mixture problems can more readily be solved with an 1864 method Mixing it up with Alligation, posted earlier in this blog.

By the way, the 5 texts in which I found this procedure are all arithmetic texts, which indicates to me that this somewhat sophisticated idea of compound proportion was taught in elementary school. I’ll give you example problems from an old text to indicate that, in my view, it was a very handy procedure for the real world experience at that time. Today we call these “application” problems.

Here’s the rule as stated in Greenleaf’s 1881 The Complete Arithmetic, page 235 (the other 4 books are cited below and present the same rule).

Rule for Compound Proportions

“Make that number which is like the answer the third term. Form a ratio of each pair of the remaining numbers of the same kind according to the rule for simple proportion, as if the answer depended on them alone. Divide the product of the means by the product of the given extreme, and the quotient is the fourth term, or answer.”

Embedded in this is reference to “…the rule for simple proportion …” which Greenleaf provides on page 233 and it is:

Rule for Simple Proportions

“Make that number which is of the same kind as the answer the third term. If from the nature of the question the answer is to be larger than the third term, make the larger of the remaining numbers the second and the smaller the first term; but if the answer is to be smaller than the third term, make the second term smaller than the first. Divide the product of the means by the given extreme, and the quotient is the fourth term, or answer.”

Students had to be able to apply this latter rule for simple proportion before being presented compound proportion. There is no conflict between the two rules; in fact, there is some overlap. For simple proportions, the rule directs the student to understand “the nature of the question …” and use that to determine which values go in which of the 4 places in the proportion. The students had to be able to assess and estimate if the answer was going to be larger or smaller and place the correct terms in the first and second places. Wow! There is a lot of estimating and juggling of values and basically it seems that all of this effort is aimed at what we would say today as determining whether it’s a direct or inverse proportion. With problems with simple values, this is a somewhat manageable issue.

For example, a problem from the text is “If a man travel 319 miles in 11 days, how far will he travel in 47 days?” Using the rule for simple proportion, the setup would be:

11/47 = 319/x    (the rule doesn’t use “x”, but I did for demonstration purposes)

The solution is (47×319) ÷ 11 = 1363

However, in today’s approach to simple proportion, the setup (in most cases) simply follows from the order of the information in the problem, giving:

319/11 = x/47

This gives the same answer but notice that the rule states “Divide the product of the means by the given extreme …” and that doesn’t apply here. So, the 1881 rule is quite constraining when it comes to writing the proportion, when indeed there are several ways to set up the proportion for the problem.

Again, there is nothing wrong about the simple or compound proportion rules as provided by Greenleaf. The issue is that the rules are somewhat convoluted and constraining. If a student doesn’t learn this algorithm and follow it precisely, the likelihood is that the correct answer won’t be found. There are a lot of words referring to the terms and judgements that a student must make about which terms go where in the proportion. Further, look at what happens with a compound proportion problem, again from Greenleaf (#67, page 236):

“If 12 men in 15 days can build a wall 30 feet long, 6 feet high, and 3 feet thick, working 12 hours a day, in what time will 30 men build a wall 300 feet long, 8 feet high, and 6 feet thick, working 8 hours a day?”

Now, where does a student begin sorting through all this information if they use the rule above for simple proportion? What’s the “nature of the question”? For example, the rule states “…make the larger of the remaining numbers …” and how is a student to know which number is to be selected? I can visualize the instructor explaining in excruciating terms how all this works. Again, it’s not impossible to apply the rules as stated in 1881 but I urge you to look at Sheldon’s Compound Proportions in this blog and see how much more direct the rule is by framing information as cause and effect.

Briefly, Sheldon’s 1886 statement of the procedure:

“The solution of every example in proportion proceeds on the assumption that effects are in the same ratio as the causes that produce them. Every proportion is the comparison of two causes and two effects. In the method known as Cause and Effect, the causes form one ratio, and the effects the other. The first cause and the first effect are antecedents; the second cause and second effect consequents.”

Notice the simplicity of identifying cause and effect and then the causes forming one ratio and the effects the other. The words” antecedents” and “consequents” could be updated to 1st and 3rd term and 2nd and 4th term, respectively.

Taking the above compound problem the 1st causes are 12 men, 15 days 12 hours a day and the 1st effect is to build the wall 30 feet long, 6 feet high, and 3 feet thick. The 2nd causes are 30 men working 8 hours a day and the 2nd effect is to build a wall 300 feet long, 8 feet high, and 6 feet thick. You are to find “…in what time…” which is a 2nd cause. There is a shortcut that can be used but let me show you – in what I call slow-motion-math – one way to make sure the terms get placed correctly. I typically use the labels and then replace it with the values (for a lot of different types of problems, not just compound proportions). The proportion following Sheldon’s procedure is:

Causes                     Effects

1st       men, days, hours         length, height, thickness

2nd       men, x, hours               length, height, thickness

I used “x” for days in the second cause. If the numbers are substituted, we have:

12•15•12 = 30•6•3
30•x•8     300•8•6

Cross-multiply and divide, solving for x and the answer is 240.

Again, a detailed description of the “cause and effect” is in Sheldon’s Compound Proportions in this blog.

The essence of this posting is to demonstrate the importance of a well thought-out procedure expressed in easily understood language. If you are an instructor, you likely have done this kind of “simplifying” of the algorithm because as stated in the text, it seemed too fussy for students to follow. Not every algorithm can be simplified but I believe it’s an instructor’s responsibility to make math more accessible to students by removing the fog of awkwardly phrased rules and algorithms. Give it a try.


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