Jay Johns Journal
of John Jay Johns
Families of MO
Friedrich Gauss Page
of Letter from Gauss
Waldo Dunnington Article
Disclaimer: The opinions on these pages are those of the writers
and don't necessarily reflect my own views. More...
December 21st, 1898.
Prof. Florian Cajori,
Colorado Springs, Colo.
It gives me great pleasure to redeem my promise to send you the autograph
letters of my Grandfather C. F. Gauss and my Aunt Theresa (his daughter).
After you have used them as you wish, please return them.
Let me thank you for the interest you take in the life and work of Grandfather
Gauss and for the Historical Sketch you propose making, a copy of which
I would be glad to receive.
Mr [sic] brother Robert has doubtless told you nearly all of the little
that is to be said of our family in this country. However as I
was with my Father during his last years more than he, I had a better
opportunity of speaking with him of his early life than either of us
had previously had.
Father's mind was not the equal of Grandfather's but in some ways it
was similar and I think I may properly say it was of much more than
ordinary strength. His ability to grasp mathematics was marked.
This was shown, in a measure, by his making after he was eighty years
old a mental computation of the amount to which one dollar would grow
if compounded annually at the rate of 4% interest from the time of Adam
to the present assuming this to be six thousand years. This if
in gold would make a cubic mass to large that it would require light
four quadrillions of years to pass along one side of it. This
is so startling as to be almost beyond belief.
He was blind at the time he did this work and the only assistance he
had was to have my brother Theodore write down at intervals during the
several days he was so occupied, the results that marked the different
stages of his work. He did this all by ordinary arithmetic, except
that he in a large measure used shorter methods of his own invention.
Mr [sic] brother - since deceased - preserved the paper on which he
wrote down long lines of figures which Father thought he might not be
able to retain in his memory. On the sheet he made several memoranda
that are interesting. For instance, Father directed him to write
down the figures
The second line of figures was written down several days after the
first and added to the upper one by my brother. Father had directed
him to begin the second line of figures by placing the figure 3 under
the second 7 of the upper line. In reading off the result of this
addition my brother read 7 in place of 8 - marked with an x. Father
detected the error, showing he was able to retain in his mind the long
line of thirty figures, and my brother made the correction.
After computing the result in dollars, he next obtained the value of
a cubic foot of gold as expressed in gold dollars. The only data
he had were the specific gravity of gold and the weight of a gold dollar.
The determination of the final result involved the operation of extracting
the cube root of the total number of cubic feet and the passage of light
along the side of this cube. As I said, he did this by arithmetical
processes. I do not think he ever studied calculus and did not
use logarithms. Aside from the fact that he used shortened methods
of his own, this calculation does not prove great mathematical ability
so much as it does his wonderful memory. He had my brother write
down the long lines of figures for fear he might forget them, but he
had to carry them in his mind in making the computations.
Another instance shows his memory of what he read - and I may say here
that he was a great reader. He was a deeply pious man and had
been a member of the Presbyterian Church for forty years previous to
his death. One day in conversation with me he expressed his disapproval
of the methods of some ministers in holding so-called "revival
services" - saying they appealed largely to the feelings of their
hearers and not to their reason, and that the results were bad when
the excitement wore off. In support of this position he asked
me to read to him from a volume of essays written by a prominent Divine.
To aid me in finding the book he described it and said if I would turn
to the table of contents and look half way down I would find a certain
article and after finding the article I would find certain portions
of it marked in pencil. I did so and found it as he said.
He had not seen the book for many years and it shows how he remembered
what he read.
Had Grandfather given his life to the study of Languages he doubtless
would have made a name for himself. I think Father's mind was
similar in this respect. After finishing his course at the Gymnasium
his desire was to take up the study of Philology. His Father wished
him to study Law and in a conversation asked him why he preferred languages.
His answer was, the pleasure to be derived from the study Grandfather
replied "Yes, but that would be small compared with the pleasure
derived from the mastery of intricate problems in mathematics."
His disappointment in the choice of his life-work no doubt had much
to do with his leaving home. Sometime after this, Grandfather
reproached him for having given a supper to his fellow-students, the
bill for which had been sent him for payment. This decided Father
and without bidding the family good-bye or making any preparations for
his journey, he left home, purposing [sic] to come to America.
Grandfather learning of it, followed him and urged him to return, at
the same time telling him he had brought his trunk and if he was determined
to seek his fortune in the New World, he would furnish him with funds
for the journey. His efforts were with avail and they parted on
My Father at the time was barely of age but his face was marked with
a scar, received in a student's duel, which he carried to his grave.
Not long after reaching this country, not willing to depend on his Father's
bounty for support, he enlisted as a private in the United States Army.
With a number of recruits he was taken to Fort Snelling near St. Paul,
Minnesota. This part of the country was a wilderness. The
Post was in charge of General Taylor and Jefferson Davis was a young
officer there. The Officers of the different companies were allowed
to choose which of these men they wanted and Father was the last taken.
One day an officer passing saw him studying a right-angled triangle
he had drawn on the floor with chalk. the Officer inquired in
surprise what he was doing. Father told him that the drill-master
instructing the new soldiers how to march oblique, had directed them
to step a certain number of inches diagonally, which would equal so
many inches to one side and so many inches forward. He showd
the officer that the hypothenuse [sic] of a right-angled triangle of
the given length of sides would not equal the length of stride they
were ordered to take. At another time an officer was unable to
understand a Frenchman. Father offered to translate for them.
He was able to speak French with such accuracy that at times he was
taken for a native of France. When it became known who he was
he was put in charge of the Post Library and relieved of the ordinary
duties of a soldier. About the time of his discharge from the
army at the end of the term of his enlistment, his oldest brother, Joseph,
was sent to this Country by his Government to study our methods of Railway
construction. He wrote to Father that he had brought letters of
introduction to General Winfield Scott who was then very prominent in
the Army and that he thought possibly he could obtain a commission in
the regular Army if Father desired it. He had other plans and
declined the offer.
He spent several years in the employ of the American Fur Company on
the headwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and was able to
speak the Sioux language with ease.
What I have said of his knowledge of the French and Sioux tongues gives
point to my statement that his ability was in the direction of the study
of language. A year before he died he spoke to me of his desire
when a young man to make the study of Philology his lifework, and said
he thought had he remained in Europe he doubtless would have been able
to obtain a chair in the University, and spoke of the great difference
this would have made in his life. His deep religious convictions
were shown by his expression of satisfaction with his coming - because
had he not done so he might never have been led to profess the religion
Father was tall and slender while Grandfather was rather heavy-set.
They both had in their youth black hair and blue eyes.
I believe it is somewhat unusual for a person of great ability in one
direction to have more than ordinary ability in other ways. Grandfather
was a notable exception to this. In early life he debated whether
to study Philology or Mathematics and he is known for his discoveries
in natural science, including electricity and astronomy almost as well
as for his solution of problems in pure mathematics. It may not
be so well known that he also had decided ability in Finance.
he kept all of his business accounts with the most scrupulous exactness,
and altho born in poverty he was able to accumulate quite a fortune
for one in his position. My Father said that Grandfather would
have made a most successful Minister of Finance had he been called to
such a place by his Government.
What I have written will have little interest for the ordinary reader
but you possibly may be interested in what I have said of my Father
in so far as it gives a glimpse of the mind and temperament of Grandfather.
He - that is Grandfather - did not want any of his sons to attempt mathematics
for he said he did not think any of them would surpass him and he did
not want the name lowered. Probably he felt the same in a measure
of any other line of scientific study.
I think one is apt to ask in regard to the sons of any distinguished
man - Have they inherited his power? - Certainly non of Grandfather's
sons to the third generation have shown anything more than ordinary
ability - unless it be my Father; his mind was unusually clear, and
had he lived the life of a student he would have distinguished himself,
but in a less degree than his Father.
C. H. Gauss
Source: Typewritten copy in the
private collection of the Chambless family. Transcribed to softcopy
by Susan D. Chambless, 1999.