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Funding for this project generously provided by Overdeck Family Foundation


Midshipman's Cyphering Book

Bound for Botany Bay?

This navigation cyphering book is believed to have belonged to a First Fleet midshipman or officer in training to become a navigator. Its contents show it was begun on a vessel bound for Australia between May 1787 and January 1788. History records that while the First Fleet initially landed at Botany Bay in early 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip ordered a relocation to a harbor a few kilometers north. Phillip named this harbor Sydney Cove, and it became the location for the settlement known as Sydney. The unknown midshipman of the First Fleet used this book to illustrate his travels, log his voyages and record calculations for voyages during the period 1787–1795.

Midshipman's Cyphering Book

Cyphering books were direct descendants of liber abaci, or work books, of the 13th to 17th centuries. Typical contents included weights and measures, basic algebra, geometry, trigonometry or other subjects of importance to merchants and craftsmen. In this specimen, the author followed a practice of creating illustrations to aid in visualizing problems, a practice that was common in some curricula of the period. While it is hard to firmly establish ownership of this cyphering book and confirm its numerous travels, the mathematical equations and watercolor illustrations it provides give valuable insights into sailing practices on long sea voyages of the 18th century.

Artifact dimensions

18.5 cm × 11 cm

Artifact origin

Kingston upon Hull, United Kingdom

Current artifact location

United States


MathematicsEducation timeline babylonian-scribe-school-multiplication-tablet Rhind Papyrus Slate with Numeral Frame Derby Museum Hornbook North American Hornbook Wood Hornbook with Abacus Maria Agnesi's Analytical Institutions Midshipman's Cyphering Book Samuel Fay's Cyphering Book Lincoln's Cyphering Book Orville Wright's Arithmetic Textbook New York State Regents Exams in Mathematics

Additional Reading

  • Cavell, S. Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the British Navy 1793–1815. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: Boydell & Brewer, 2012.
  • Ellerton, N. and Clements, M. Rewriting the History of School Mathematics in North America 1607–1861. New York: Springer 2012.
  • Ellerton, N. and Clements, M. "Bound for Botany Bay? Circa 1791." In Abraham Lincoln's Cyphering Book, and Ten Other Extraordinary Cyphering Books. New York: Springer, pp. 233–254, 2014.
  • McLachlan, H. English Education Under the Test Acts: Being the History of the Nonconformist Academies, 1662–1820. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1931.
  • Moore, J. The practical navigator and seaman's new daily assistant, being an epitome of navigation, including the different methods of working the lunar observations, with every particular requisite for keeping a complete journal at sea. London, UK: B. Law, 1791.
  • Phillip, A. The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, with an account of the establishment of the colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island, to which are added the journals of Lieuts. Shortland, Watts, Ball & Capt. Marshall. London, UK: John Stockdale, 1789.
  • Sloan, K. "The Teaching of Non-Professional Artists in Eighteenth-Century England." PhD thesis. Westfield College, University of London, 1986.