Exploring Math, Science and Technology Primary Sources from the Library of Congress Manuscript Division

This post is written by Michelle Krowl of the Library’s Manuscript Division

When you think of primary source materials in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress that support lesson plans in math, science and technology, several collections likely come to mind. The papers of aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright stand out immediately, as would those of inventors Samuel F. B. Morse (telegraph), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Herman Hollerith (early tabulating machine computers), or perhaps those of astronomer Carl Sagan, or biologist E. O. Wilson.

But math, science and technology can be found throughout Manuscript Division collections, sometimes in unexpected places or in ways that may not be obvious at first.

Thomas Jefferson’s drawing of a macaroni machine and instructions for making pasta, ca. 1787. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division

Thomas Jefferson’s papers contain numerous examples of his interest in technology and scientific observation, including his drawing of a macaroni machine. The technology in the drawing is the simple machine Jefferson diagrammed to explain how pasta was shaped into macaroni. Students can discuss how the machine worked, and on what scale they think the pasta was made. Does what Jefferson described as “maccaroni” look like the macaroni we know? Is this a little machine that produced small batches, or a bigger machine for larger output? How does this compare with how pasta is made at home and on an industrial scale today? This document also invites further exploration. Why might Jefferson have drawn this diagram? Pasta is very familiar to us today, but how common was it in 18th century America? Students might speculate on pasta ingredients available in the 18th versus 21st centuries. What roles could agricultural production, preservatives, transportation, and knowledge of different cuisines play in the type of foods Americans ate over time?

Sketch of penny-farthing bicycles, Charles Wellington Reed Papers, Manuscript Division.

Union army veteran and artist Charles Wellington Reed is best known for illustrations centered on the American Civil War. After the war, Reed became an avid bicyclist. Two sketches (sketch 1; sketch 2) in his papers of “penny-farthing” bicycles prompt several scientific and technological questions. What are the physics involved with such a bicycle? What is the advantage to having a large wheel in the front and a small one in the back? How does the rider get on the bicycle? What challenges might someone encounter in riding it? How fast might it go? How does the rider stop it? Was it prone to crashing, as this sketch suggests, and if so, why? In what way is the technology of bicycles today different than those of the “penny-farthings,” and when did that shift start to occur?

With a little exploration, students can find a wealth of math, science and technology waiting to be discovered in Manuscript Division collections. But as LeRoy Gresham’s 1863 math assignment shows, word problems are nothing new, even when the modes of transportation change.

LeRoy W. Gresham, mathematical homework, 1863, Lewis H. Machen Family Papers, Manuscript Division 


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