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Presidents Do Math?

This week's News focuses on coded correspondence between President Thomas Jefferson and his friendly mathematician Robert Patterson. Is this unusual for Presidents?

First, Thomas Jefferson loved exploring mathematics, especially Euclid's Elements.

Second, he was unusual in his broad knowledge of multiple sciences, being an astronomer, surveyor, and architect.

Third, he (and Patterson) held office in the American Philosophical Society, a group that openly promoted and funded scholarly research in both the sciences and the humanities.

Finally, Jefferson was an avid user of ciphers and other codes, as revealed in the correspondence between the two.

President Jefferson even constructed his own clever code. His "wheel cipher" involved cylindrical pieces threaded onto an iron spindle. Letters were etched on the edge of each wheel in a random order, allowing encoding and decoding of text simply by rotating the wheels.

If you want to learn more about President Jefferson's math-side, dig up a copy of D.E. Smith's "Thomas Jefferson and Mathematics" (Scripta Mathematica, 1932).