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around 1813

Samuel Fay's Cyphering Book

A well-traveled cyphering book

Samuel Fay, a 13-year-old schoolboy from Boston, wrote these cyphers around 1813. Like many students before and after him, Fay augmented his scholarly tasks with artwork, including a creditable sketch of a three-masted frigate strongly resembling the USS Constitution, which is concealed on the reverse side of the inside front cover's front endpaper. Since the word “Constitution” was printed immediately below the sketch of the frigate on the inside front cover, Samuel no doubt took the opportunity to sketch "Old Ironsides" (more formally known as United States Navy's USS Constitution and presently the world's oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat) when docked in Boston Harbor in October 1817 for the 20th anniversary of its launching.

Samuel Fay's Cyphering Book

This cyphering book from the collection of Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements also has a connection to other important figures in American history. When young Samuel Fay grew up, he married Susan Shellman in Georgia in 1825. One of their children, Harriet, would marry the Reverend James Smith Bush (1825–1899), the great-grandfather of 41st president George H. W. Bush (1924–2018) and great-great-grandfather of 43rd president George W. Bush (1946–). However, at some point, this cypher book seems to have been handed to Fay’s sister, Eliza, who took it with her to England. Sharing a cypher book with family members was not uncommon. Some cypher books bear the names of multiple generations, as the books were passed from parent to child to sibling and so on.

Artifact origin

Massachusetts, United States

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

  • Ellerton, N. and Clements, M. "The Influence of the Cyphering Tradition on North American Mathematics Between 1607 and 1850." Unpublished manuscript, Oct. 21, 2019.
  • Ellerton, N. and Clements, M. North American Cyphering Books Prepared Between 1665 and 1865. Perth, Australia: Meridian Press, 2019.