William Jones: The First Math Teacher to Use Pi

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

Eighteenth-century mathematician William Jones had a problem with pi—namely, it didn’t exist yet. At the time of his working and teaching in the field of mathematics, there was no term for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, despite the value’s importance to even the most basic study of geometry. In his 1706 book, Synopsis Palmariorum Matheseos, or A New Introduction to the Mathematics, he made a modest proposal: that the universal constant be known as pi, and thus was mathematical history born.

Before being ascribed a modern name, pi existed under the guise of a bulkier, more antiquated phrase: quantitas in quam cum multiflicetur diameter, proveniet circumferencia—Latin for “the quantity which, when the diameter is multiplied by it, yields the circumference.” While descriptive, the collection of words required to denote pi before “pi” did not lend itself to clear or efficient discussion of the concept. Prior to Jones publishing his bold decision, fractions like 22/7 or 355/113 often served to fill in for the mysterious constant, but gave the erroneous impression that the number was a rational one, which can be fully expressed by one whole number divided into another—an assumption that had not yet been disproved, but with which Jones firmly disagreed. For this reason, only an idealized symbol would suffice to represent the concept, and so the Welshman turned to the Greek alphabet.

π, written in Roman letters as “pi,” is the Greek equivalent to our letter ‘p’. For this reason, 17th-century mathematician William Oughtred used π to denote the “periphery,” or the circumference of any given circle—a value that changed as the circle changed. Jones borrowed this earlier logic and applied it to his theory of an irrational, but universal constant value for the circle’s circumference-to-diameter ratio. Johann Lambert’s definitive proof in 1761 that π was an irrational number justified Jones’s earlier instinct, and once Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler began to use and widely disseminate the symbol π in correspondence with his contemporaries, π was here to stay.

In honor of William Jones, unsung hero of pi, throw on one of these two new mental_floss t-shirts and have a moment of silence for the man responsible for turning pi from a letter into a number.