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Ancient maths text discovered at Geneva market

A Swiss historian browsing at a Geneva flea market has stumbled upon a previously unknown maths text published in Bern in 1619.

Alain Schärlig, a former professor at Lausanne University and author of numerous books on the history of mathematics, bought the 750-page tome for SFr200 ($165) from a vendor at the Plainpalais flea market.

The book's author, Johann Rudolf von Graffenried, notes in the text that he taught himself maths "by the grace of God" and wanted to summarise various mathematical systems known at the time.

Arabic numerals – 1, 2, 3 – the most common way to write numbers today, were just beginning to make their way into Germanic languages, and the book, which is in excellent condition and complete, reflects this.

The text is written in a mix of German and Latin and features examples of common mathematical functions, such as adding and subtracting, often in cumbersome gothic numerals. This suggests it could have been practical for merchants and administrators.

Schärlig said the book was published with the author's own funds and therefore it is unlikely that many copies exist. Even if they do, the text has never been cited in any scientific literature, he said.


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