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Simon Stevin Daniel Moore MS 475 October 4th, 2011

Simon Stevin was born in the year 1548 in Bruges. Then, Bruges was a part of Flanders. A small nation centered on Bruges that reached its height of power in the late fifteenth century and was just beginning it's decline after the birth of one of the worlds greatest mathematicians, Simon Stevin. (Bayle, Des Maizeaux, Gaudin, and Tricaud 236) The city is today part of Belguim and the region of Belgium where Dutch is spoken is still referred to as Flanders. It is surprising, now, to think of Bruges as a center of wealth and power. In modern times, Bruges is prized for it's storybook character. In a world that flies a million miles an hour, Bruges stands apart as a quiet and slow place. It was a bustling powerful port city in the time of Stevin. It's economic strength was built upon it's easy access to the North Sea after a flood in 1134 that deepened the existing Zwin river. Over the next four hundred years, Bruges came to dominate trade in the region. However, beginning in the mid sixteenth century, Simon Stevin's time, the slow moving Zwin river had deposited so much silt in its basin that the port became unusable. Bruges fell away as a center of power. It lost economic control to cities with better port access. ("Earth Observatory") Although Simon Stevin wrote in Dutch to promote using the common language, the decline of Flanders after his death made his work less accessible because the dominate languages of the area became French and German. Stevin's parents had some economic trouble. Documents in the Bruges city archieves indicate Simon had several half siblings on support of the state the documents state, "give notice to the orphans' court of money intended for the bastards."His mothers house 'The Golden Shield' was auctioned off in 1567 when Stevin was nineteen. He was declared of age by the court in 1577. (Devreese 19) Unfortunately, apart from the few monetary records that mention his family, we know very little of Simon Stevin's early life. We do know he was a bookkeeper for a firm in Antwerp, a large banking and trade center then as it still is today. In 1583 he entered the University of Leiden. It was there that he became friends with prince Maurits who would soon give him positions of importance and thus allow him to achieve the fame and status he enjoyed during his lifetime.

Stevin quickly published many treatises on wide ranging topics from mathematics to military defenses for the state. He also invented a sailing chariot, a carriage that was propelled by wind like a ship. Stevin along with Prince Maurits and other members of the court, sailed the land ship to the beach.(Devreese 45-46) Simon Stevin did finally buy a house in The Hague in 1612 and settle down with his wife Catherine Krai. But, that was after almost all of his famous publishing and great political engineering feats. It is safe to assume from his family history that he did father children while he was rich and famous before settling down at a relatively old age with his wife Catherine. However, there is no direct evidence of this fact. He fathered four legitimate children by Catherine. Hendrik, his second child, became the editor of Simon's collected works which he published during the final leisurely state of his life. His other publication of the period was about the building of sliuces, crucial of course for the Dutch. The other work of that period was De Spiegheling der Singconst or Theory of the art of singing. This work was the first to have a correct theory of the octave being divided into twelve equal parts, the cornerstone of European music. This final work is so different from the rest of his work because it was done at a point when Stevin was no longer attempting to achieve greatness. He was, after all, already there. He did not even publish it during his lifetime but his manuscript survived until 1884 when it was published. (O'Connor) He began publishing in 1582. with Tafelen van interest or Tables of interest which covered rules for simple and compound interest. In 1583 he published Problemata geometrica, a geometry based largely on Euclid and Archimedes as most geometry works would continue to be until the 1800's. The interesting thing about the publication of this work was that it was written in Latin. The standard for the day to be sure. However, all the rest of Stevin's works were published in Dutch as he made it a point to promote the learning of the common man. La Theinde (The tenth) he published in 1585 a small booklet really, only twenty-nine pages, on the use of decimal fractions and how they can and should be used in all accounts. He wanted to

promote their use by the prosperous merchants of Bruges. He himself claims he wrote the book for, "stargazers, surveyors, carpet-makers, wine-gaugers, mint-masters, and all kind of merchants." (O'Connor) He was correct that the use of the decimal was so significant it became the universal standard in coins, measure, and weight. The concept of exponents of ten is so powerful that it is the basis for the metric system. Thomas Jefferson was inspired by the English translation to propose decimal currency for the United States. And, we use Stevin's term "dime" for one tenth of our American dollar. His notation for decimals was a major pain. He wrote down and circled the exponent of one over ten for every integer that formed a number. Thus doubling the amount of writing required compared to the modern practice. However this "invention" of decimals allows all the calculations to be reduced to integer calculations and eliminates the need for fractions in most daily calculations. Today decimals are so commonplace and well understood that children begin using decimals before the fractions from which they are derived. It is clear that Simon Stevin was not the very first mathematician to use some form of decimal notation. It was widespread among the Arabic intellectuals. However, Stevin was the first and primary source for the use of decimal fractions in Europe. His mathematical practice was well adopted in Europe once the notation was cleaned up a bit. Although Bruges lost its power and his beloved Dutch language did not become widespread, European culture and language dominated the world from the eighteenth century to the modern era. And thus, so did the decimal become universal. Also in 1585, Simon Stevin wrote La pratique d'arithmetique and L'arithmetique. These were both published in French. L'arithmetique presents a method for approximating solutions for all algebraic equations. Stevin claimed in these texts that irrational numbers, square roots, and negative numbers are all just numbers and should be handled the same as other numbers. This was a stark move from the sixteenth century mathematics which only recognized natural numbers greater than one as numbers. Simon Stevin argued among other things that "one is also a number."

"A number is not a discontinuous quantity." And, "there is absolutely nothing absurd or irrational about the square root of a number such as the square root of eight. It is merely a number whose square is eight. Just as four is a number whose square is sixteen."(Katz) Algebra in the 1500's was quite exciting to Stevin, as evident by his choice of words, "Now we have come to the last problem of this book, which is on the highly singular and admirable Rule of Algebra, the Inexhaustible fountain of infinite Arithmetical Theorems, Revealer of the mysteries hidden in numbers."(Devreese 200) We can see from this quote just how enthused Simon Stevin was with the expansion of the notion of a real number. Stevin's notion of a real number has become the norm and is now accepted by everyone. Stevin's Treatise on Static or in Dutch De Beghinselen der Weegconst and De Beghinselen des Waterwichts or Treatise on Hydrostatics were definitely his most influential work of the time. It is most famous for the theorem of triangle forces. His diagram of weights supported on an incline plane is what he holds in his hand in his statue in Bruges that still stands today. The first part of the static book is all about vertical weights. In it he defines center of gravity and redefines Archimedes' law of equilibrium for a two armed lever. The rest of the book covers weights acting obliquely. For his most famous proof in statics, he proposes in the book a triangle with the longest side resting on the ground and the rest of the triangle sticking upright. Of the other two sides one is double the length of the other. He then says suppose there is a chain of fourteen equal and equidistant spheres to be placed over the triangle in such a manner as to have two resting on the short side and four resting on the long side. The triangle forces theorem then states that the four spheres on the long side balance the weight of the two on the short side. His proof is a simple one of contradiction wherein the proof may be summarized as follows. If the four did not balance with the two, then the four balls on the longer side plus the four hanging below them, which are suspended, will lift the two on the other side plus the four suspended below that side. This will then establish a new position of the balls identical to the start. There will once again be four on one side and two on the other with eight in suspension as was first described.

Thus, if there is any motion at all it will be perpetual motion. But his is absurd and contradicts well known natural laws. Therefore there is not motion but the system is at rest. It follows that the two balls on the short side are in perfect equilibrium with the four on the long side. (Devreese 133-180) This work is the foundation of much of the later work of Newtonian physics. The static problems Simon Stevin proposed and explained are a major part of modern college introductory physics courses. The connection of weight and the force of gravity was not his concern but he did not need to know gravity to understand the actions of a weight on an incline plane and explain them all with mathematics. The book on hydrostatics is considered by a great many to be the foundation of hydrostatics. In his work he showed the pressure of a liquid on a given surface depends on the height of the liquid and the area of the surface. Stevin was the very first intellectual since Archimedes to make any discoveries in hydrostatics. He was probably able to do this because Latin translations of Archimedes' works became available in the mid sixteenth century. Although he started with many of Archimedes' axioms he also developed some of his own. All the works of Pascal, Boyle, and Bernoulli were built upon the theories of Simon Stevin. (Devreese 155-160) Without the mathematics as a foundation for his work we could not have the hydraulic pump that is a direct result of the Bernoulli principal. This amazing invention is the means by which many mechanical engines transfer power to large machinery. It is found in almost every piece of modern machinery on farms and in industrial plants. His work on this subject was surely prompted by the immediate needs of Flanders. As we know Bruges was at the time beginning to have problems with its port. Maurice of Nassau assigned Simon Stevin a public office in charge of handling dykes and other waterworks. Later

Stevin was promoted to quartermaster-general of States-General and he oversaw the military needs of defense. For this he developed, using his hydrostatic theories, a method of quickly flooding the plains in Flanders thus slowing the attacking ground troops and allowing the defending forces of Flanders to lay waste to them at range. Furthermore, he made a publishing on the construction of

fortification in the year 1594 called De Stercktenbouwing. His publication on hydrostatics also had a great deal to do with the pressure of water on vertical and inclined walls. The need for that is obvious when you know that Flanders is below sea level and the Dutch are constantly fighting back the sea with their dykes. (Devresse 170-171) In 1608, while he was influential and well respected, he published De Hemelloop. It covered astronomy. In the publication Simon Stevin took up the cause of Copernicus and defended the heliocentric view of the solar system. (O'Connor) Simon Stevin was not the only champion of Copernicus' theories, but his influence and position of power was a great boon to the cause. It is clear from the rest of his life (The use of Dutch in his publications and the dedication of his works to the layman for example.) that Stevin did not care about conventions and always sought to do what he thought was best and right. An important part of his championing of what was right and good was his publication on the tabulation of interest, his first work Tafelen van interest. The mathematics of interest calculation were a closely guarded secret of the banks. Much of the published material in Tafelen van interest

was well known to bankers. Many of the formulas in the publication are still used today, but before Simon Stevin forced them into the eyes of the public with is publication in Dutch the formulas were hidden from sight and unknown to the layman. (Bayle, Des Maizeaux, Gaudin, and Tricaud 236) Simon Stevin also tried to convince prince Maurice of the usefulness of double-entry bookkeeping style. The local merchants had already been using this style for over half a century. In Tafelen van interest, unlike his more intellectual works, Stevin does not claim many sources or references. This being his first major publication may be one of the reasons for this fact. He attributes his knowledge on the subject to experience. Many scholars say Stevin's publication on bookkeeping was the foundation of the "art of bookkeeping" until the 1900's. (Devreese) It is not surprising given Stevins pioneering works in statics and hydrostatics already discussed. But, keep in mind that the Tabulation of Interest was his very first publication. After being from a financially

troubled family and only working as an accountant, Stevin laid the foundations for the subsequent three and a half centuries of interest calculations. Simon Stevin published De Havenvinding in 1599. In it he discusses the variation of the magnetic needle of a compass and demonstrates how the latitude of a place being known along with the variation of the magnetic needle is the same place although the longitude is unknown. He does it through tables of measured locations such as Amsterdam and the Isle of St. Helenaand other well known European locations. This study was greatly important at the time because of the recent discovery of the Americas. Many voyages were set from Europe across the Atlantic at that time. And soon the Dutch were competing for colonies in the Caribbean. The work unlike his mathematical treatises is a bit hard to follow for someone who is not a mariner. But, to the sailors of the day this increased accuracy in navigation was nothing to laugh at. As he says near the end of his work, "he shall see how every experiment agree with the other: and when at every moment the same North point is found, that thing shall give the master of the ship no small courage, and more certain confidence of his work." (Stevin) It was extremely important when sailing a large ocean for long periods at a time for the navigators to know precisely where they were on that ocean. Especially when sailing for such small islands as the ones claimed by the Dutch in the early sixteenth century definitely thanks in some part to the works of Simon Stevin. The scientific community of the sixteenth century was beginning is transformation from Latin base to vernacular. As such Stevin was a great contributor of vocabulary to the Dutch language. Plenty of mathematical and scientific terms had not vernacular translation so he invented his own words where they were needed and his publishings made these words common. As already discussed he coined the word "disme" for one tenth which is used today for American currency. Although the 's' was dropped in it's translation to English.(Devreese 75-78) Simon Stevin was a massive influential force on the development of the real number system, science, navigation, and economics. His promotion of the vernacular was well intentioned. Although modern mathematicians don't publish in Dutch very much, most do publish in English

even if English is not their primary language. Having taken Latin, I personally am very glad we do not write up our proofs in that outdated and unchanging language anymore. Stevin's work in interest allowed generations of laymen to understand what the banks were doing with thier calculations of interest. Furthermore, double entry bookkeeping, though not invented by Stevin, is the way even small businesses and households track their finances. His calculations for navigation and work with hydrostatics helped the Dutch to be a competing colonial power against Spain and England. But, far and beyond those works must be his contributions to the real number system and the "invention" of decimal notation. Where would we be if one was still not a number? Do we not know the square root of a number is still definitely a number? Who today does not understand the number 3.16 to represent three and sixteen hundredths? Certainly the mathematics of today would not be the same if it were not for Simon Stevin.


Bayle, Pierre, Pierre Des Maizeaux, Alexis Gaudin, and Anthelme Tricaud. The dictionary historical and critical of Mr. Peter Bayle. 5. J.J. and P. Knapton, 1738. 236. Devreese, Jozef T., and Guido Vanden Berghe. Magic is No Magic : the wonderful world of Simon Stevin. Boston: WIT Press, 2008. "Bruge, Belguim." Earth Observatory. N.p., 15 Jan 2006. Web. 1 Oct 2011. Flegg, Graham. Numbers: their history and meaning. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. 75-76. Katz, Karin. "Stevin Numbers and Reality." Foundations of Science 13, May (2011): Online First. Web. 11 Sep 2011. Midonick, Henrietta O. The Treasury of Mathematics; a collection of source material in mathematics edited and presented with introductory biographical and historical sketches. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965. O'Connor, J. J., and E. F. Robertson. "Simon Stevin." The MacTutor History of Mathematics. University of St. Andrews, January 2004. Web. 9 Sep 2011. <>. Stevin, Simon. The haven-finding art. London. 1599. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968. Print.