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Warren Colburn

Warren Colburn, the eminent American mathematician, was born in Dedham, Mass., March 1, 1793.

He was the eldest son of a large family of children. His parents were poor, and "Warren" was, during his childhood, frequently employed in different manufacturing establishments to aid the family by his small earnings.

In early boyhood he manifested an unusual taste for mathematics, and in the common district school was regarded as remarkable in this department. He learned the trade of a machinist, studying winters, until he was over twenty-two years of age, when he began to fit for Harvard College, which he entered in 1817 and graduated with high honors in 1820. He taught school in the winter months, while in college, in Boston, Leominster, and in Canton, Mass. From 1820 to 1823 he taught a select school in Boston.

While in college he was regarded as by far the best mathematician in his class, and during this period thought there was the necessity for such a book as his "First Lessons in Intellectual Arithmetic." This conviction had been forced upon his mind by his experience in teaching. In the autumn of 1821 he published his "first edition." His plan was well digested, although he was accustomed to say that "the pupils who were under his tuition made his arithmetic for him;" that the questions they asked and the necessary answers and explanations which he gave in reply were embodied in the book, which has had a sale unprecedented for any book on elementary arithmetic in the world, having reached over 2,000,000 copies in this country, and the sale still continues, both in this country and in Great Britain. It has been translated into most of the European languages and by missionaries into many Asiatic languages.

After teaching in Boston about two and one-half years, he was chosen superintendent of the Boston Manufacturing Company's works at Waltham, Mass., and accepted the position; and in August, 1824, owing to the mechanical genius he displayed in applying power to machinery, combined with his great administrative ability, he was appointed superintendent of the Lowell Merrimac Manufacturing Co., at Lowell, Mass. Here he projected a system of lectures of an instructive character, presenting commerce and useful subjects in such a way as to gain attention and enlighten the people.

For several years he delivered gratuitous lectures on the Natural History of Animals, Light, Electricity, the Seasons, Hydraulics, Eclipses, etc. His knowledge of machinery enabled him admirably to illustrate these lectures by models of his own construction; and his successful experiments and simple teaching added much to the practical knowledge of his operatives.

He proposed to occupy the space between the common schools and the college halls by carrying, so far as might be practicable, the design of the Rumford Lectures of Harvard into the community of the actual workers of common life.

In the mean time he discharged his official duties efficiently, and the superintendence of the schools of Lowell was also added to his labors. He never relinquished, during these busy years, the design formed in his college days of furnishing to the children of the country a series of text-books on the "inductive plan" in mathematics.

His "Algebra upon the Inductive Method of Instruction," appeared in 1825, and his "Sequel to Intellectual Arithmetic" in 1836. He regarded the "Sequel" as a book of more merit and importance than the "First Lessons."

He also published a series of selections from Miss Edgeworth's stories, in a suitable form for reading exercises for the younger classes of the Lowell schools, in the use of which the teachers were carefully instructed.

In May, 1827, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Sciences. For several years he was a member of the Examining Committee for Mathematics at Harvard College.

He was a member of the Superintending School Committee of Lowell; and so busy were he and his coworkers that they were repeatedly obliged to hold their meetings at six o'clock in the morning.

Warren Colburn was ardently admired--almost revered--by the teachers who were trained to use his "Inductive Methods of Instruction" in teaching elementary mathematics.

In personal appearance Mr. Colburn was decidedly pleasing. His height was five feet ten, and his figure was well proportioned. His face was one not to be forgotten; it indicated sweetness of disposition, benevolence, intelligence, and refinement. His mental operations were not rapid, and it was only by great patience and long continued thought that he achieved his objects. He was not fluent in conversation; his hesitancy of speech, however, was not so great when with friends as with strangers. The tendency of his mind was toward the practical in knowledge; his study was to simplify science, and to make it accessible to common minds.

Mr. Colburn will live in educational history as the author of "Warren Colburn's First Lessons," one of the very best books ever written, and which, for a quarter of a century, was in almost universal use as a text-book in the best common schools, not only in the primary and intermediate grades, but also in the grammar school classes.

In accordance with the method of this famous book, the pupils were taught in a natural way, a knowledge of the fundamental principles of arithmetic. By its use they developed the ability to solve mentally and with great facility all of the simple questions likely to occur in the every day business of common life.

Undoubtedly Pestalozzi first conceived the idea of the true "inductive method" of teaching numbers; but it was Mr. Colburn who adapted it to the needs of the children of the common elementary schools. It has wrought a great change in teaching, and placed Warren Colburn on the roll as one of the educational benefactors of his age.

He died at Lowell, Mass., Sept. 13, 1883, at the age of 90 years.--"Journal of Education".

Source: Scientific American Supplement, No. 455, September 20, 1884

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