Robert Recorde (c1510-1558)


Robert Recorde was born c.1510 in Tenby, Pembrokeshire. He was educated at Oxford (BA and Fellowship of All Souls in 1531) and Cambridge (MD in 1545). He practised medicine, and was a public servant (Controller of the Bristol Mint, Surveyor of the Mines and Monies in Ireland). He died in London in 1558, imprisoned for £1000 debt following a libel case brought by Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.

Recorde was an able teacher, an author of important books, and one of the outstanding scholars of 16th Century Europe. Among his books that are of special interest for the computational tradition he founded are:

The Ground of Artes (1543)
This is an influential book on arithmetic in the English vernacular (rather than Latin) that explains both the “new” decimal arithmetic and the “ancient” abacus arithmetic.
The Pathway to Knowledge (1551)
A version of the first four books of Euclid with an emphasis on algorithmic constructions.
The Castle of Knowledge (1556)
This is an introduction to astronomy, the first in English. It covers Ptolemy’s sphere and mentions Copernicus’s new (1543) theory.
The Whetstone of Witte (1557)
This work is famous for the explicit invention of the equality sign = thus making an account of algebra that was completely symbolic.

Accounts of Recorde’s work are contained in most histories of mathematics. Some useful references are:

"Robert Recorde", in Charles C Gillispie (ed), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 11, 338–339. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1981.

Howell A Lloyd, " 'Famous in the Field of Number and Measure' : Robert Recorde, Renaissance Mathematician", Welsh History Review, Volume 20 (2000) 254–282. University of Wales Press.

A long-awaited comprehensive study of what is known about Robert Recorde is:

Jack Williams, Robert Recorde: Tudor Polymath, Expositor and Practitioner of Computation, Springer, 2010. The volume can be browsed at Google books.

In a Foreword to the above book, there is a short essay:

John V Tucker, "Robert Recorde and the History of Computing", available in PDF,

on why authors such as Recorde are of interest to historians of computer science.

The Robert Recorde Memorial

The Robert Recorde Memorial is a large plaque, commissioned by the Department of Computer Science, University of Wales Swansea in 2001, for the entrance to its Seminar and Conference Room.

It was designed by the artist John Howes and carved by the calligrapher Ieuan Rees.

The Robert Recorde Memorial

The Robert Recorde Memorial (2001)

Welsh Slate. Height: 1150mm. Width 1810mm)

The design celebrates the “algorithmic tradition’ for arithmetic and algebra associated with the Calculating Masters such as Gregor Reisch, Adam Ries, and Robert Recorde.

The female figure personifies arithmetic and is based on a famous engraving appearing in Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica (Strassbourg, 1504). In the engraving the figure watches over Pythagoras using the arithmetic of the abacus and Boethius using the arithmetic of the decimal number system.

The digital world is represented by the hex which codes part of the scanned image of arithmetic.

The geometry is based on the Golden Section, which has an intimate connection with the Fibonacci numbers.

The quotation comes from Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge (1556) and reads:

“... in al mennes workes, you be not abused by their autoritye, but evermore attend to their reasons, and examine them well, ever regarding more what is saide, and how it is proved, then who saieth it: for autoritie often times deceaveth many menne.”

The advice is ideal for all members of a University, from beginning students to retiring professors.

Further pictures show details of the memorial plaque.

Robert Recorde Room

The Robert Recorde Room is the Seminar and Conference Room of the Department of Computer Science, University of Wales Swansea. It was created by the Department in February 2000 and named after Robert Recorde who was a distinguished Renaissance writer of books on arithmetic, practical calculation, geometry and astronomy.

It accommodates 50 people in any seating arrangement. There is a foyer for reception and kitchen close at hand for entertaining. Enquires about booking the room may be made by calling Mrs Jill Edwards (telephone: 295393) or the University's Conference Office.

[Page created by J V Tucker, 12 January 2003; last updated 27 February 2012]