Precious Pages of Pitt History: Tattered notebook reveals ‘rigorous’ training at Pitt progenitor, Pittsburgh Academy

Issue Date: 
April 28, 2013

The faded pages of a student’s mathematics notebook, beautifully penned sometime between 1801 and 1803, comprise the only artifact in the University Library System’s archives dating back to the time when the University of Pittsburgh was known as the Pittsburgh Academy—a small structure, presumably a log house, in what is now Downtown Pittsburgh.

The notebook belonged to Pitt alumnus Joseph H. Larwill, and its well-worn ornate brown covers encase 170 pages of notes on geometry, interest calculations, square roots, and fractions.

“It is clear the training one received at such a ‘frontier academy’ was thorough and rigorous,” noted Nicholas Rescher, Pitt Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy. “We can see how mathematics was actually taught in the 1780-1820 era and what the teachers actually demanded. The laboriousness of the work is striking.”

Historical records show that Larwill was studying surveying at the Pittsburgh Academy. In 1804, the U.S. Land Office appointed him to survey Wayne, Stark, and Columbiana counties in Ohio. In 1810, he oversaw the laying and opening of the Ohio road that linked Canton to Mansfield. Larwill also drew the original map of Fort Meigs, a fortification in Northwest Ohio that was used during the War of 1812. Larwill eventually went on to a successful career in Ohio politics.

Larwill’s math notebook, acquired in 2011 from a private collector, is housed in the University Library System’s climate-controlled Thomas Boulevard facility. The public can visit to view it online.

Said Assistant University Librarian Michael Dabrishus: “Because we have so very little information about the Pittsburgh Academy, any shred of information is helpful to our understanding of that part of Pitt’s history.”