Joseph Ray and Ray's Arithmetic

West Virginia Review
February 1932

Joseph Ray, The Mathematician, and The Man

By Raymond Grove Hughes

"What you are," wrote Emerson, "speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say," and there have been many persons for whom these words had a singular aptness. But Joseph Ray, the mathematician, was not one of them. His life was so modest and his attitude so retiring that to this day, three-quarters of a century after his death, there has been little or no recognition given to the man who "taught the past generation to 'figure'." His contribution to the field of learning during the heyday of the one-roomed school has spoken so loudly in the development of contemporary society that the personality behind the arithmetic has gone practically unknown.

Who was Joseph Ray? When did he live? What was he like? Where was he born? Where did he do his work? What about his family?

These are but a few of the questions that are asked about the personality behind those famous texts. But in order to understand Ray, the mathematician, one must understand Ray, the man. Then, too one must become intimate with Mose, his brother, who many contend was not only a more peculiar but a greater genius. There was, it is true, something different about the. Ray boys, something which made their neighbors hold them in distinct respect, something which causes the passing generation to speak of them in subdued voices even to this day.

Joseph Ray did for figures what McGuffey did for literature and what Harvey did for grammar. He belongs to that famous textbook dynasty which ruled supreme during the 1830's and '40's when the system of free and universal public schools began to have momentum. With the increase of schools there was a corresponding need for texts, and Ray's is the saga of the arithmetics. They were designed for true mental training, and as such, says former Governor James Cox of Ohio, "were a real challenge to the young mathematician. The test of rapidity in addition multiplication and division gave spur to the mind and were a good form of mental gymnastics."

Joseph Ray was born in Ohio County, West Virginia, on November 25, 1807, while it was still a part of the Old Dominion. His parents were English and were descendants of John Ray, the naturalist. Nineteen years before his birth his grandparents had bought the farm on Battle Run, four miles from West Liberty and two miles from the National Road. It is known as the Ray farm to this day although it has changed hands many times. The Rays were among the pioneer settlers in the Wheeling district, and naturally there was still much work to be done on the one hundred sixty acre farm while Joseph was growing up. The boy, however, was not interested in farming, but chose rather to read and 'figure'. For a few months each year he attended the district school, and early in his teens went to the academy at West Alexander, Pennsylvania, which was less than five miles from his home.

Glowing tales of the great new country across the river captured his imagination and in 1823 he set out for "Ohio the Beautiful." The first half of the nineteenth century saw the population of that State grow from 45,000 to more than a million. The population was heterogenous in every respect except its desire to make Ohio a real democracy based on the Jeffersonian idea. Cincinnati was the urban metropolis of the then middle west and it was into this teeming center that young Ray went. He had left West Virginia never to return except for occasional visits.

Amelia Barr has said that the most successful way to develop a man is to change his environment just when he is at the impressionable age. Joseph Ray's name might well lead the list. At sixteen he was teaching school in Cincinnati and planning on going to college. By denying himself everything but the bare necessities he was able to save a few dollars from his meager salary and to enroll at the newly formed Ohio University at Athens, but his money did not last and he withdrew without a degree. Once again he returned to Cincinnati and to teaching. He next quit the schoolroom for medicine. When but twenty-two he received his M.D. from Ohio Medical College. He remained in the medical profession until 1831 when he was invited to join the faculty of Woodward High School as instructor of mathematics.

This was the turning point in his life. Even as a child figures held for him a peculiar enchantment and with the passing of the years this fascination had developed into a mania. However, this was a characteristic common to the Ray family. Mose, his brother, younger by fifteen years, was, some say, an even greater mathematician.

It would be entirely out of order to write a story about Joseph Ray without mentioning Mose. This younger brother never married but chose rather to live alone on the family farm with Aunt Nancy, his old black housekeeper who never questoned his idiosyncrasies. Maybe it was because he was so much alone that he fell into the habit of talking to himself, A neighbor of his in the late seventies tells of asking him why he continually did this.

"Well, I'll just tell you," said Mose, "I like to talk to an intelligent man, and to hear an intelligent man talk."

He had what could be termed a hostility toward women, and Jeremy Terrell was fond of telling a tale that illustrates this attitude and his wit. The two of them were returning from Wheeling one night on horseback when they overtook two strange girls. Jeremy, against Mose's wish, asked them to ride. Mose, naturally, was perturbed, and when they arrived at the farm where the girls were to visit, the one who had been riding with him said, "And whom am I to thank for the ride?"

"Thank Jeremy," said Mose. "Thank Jeremy."

Mose cared nothing for position and little more for money, and although his judgment was invariably good, the pity of it is that he failed to follow it. He is reputed to have spent the major part of his time and that part of the family fortune which he did not drink up on proposed inventions which have since been patented by those who were more persistent. On the farm to this day are signs of his inventive ingenuity - a strange contrivance to draw water and devices to turn the grindstone.

Many are the stories that have come down by way of tradition telling how he would point out errors in Joseph's arithmetics. It is claimed that he said The Higher Arithmetic was all right for children but not for adults. After having gone through one of his brother's books he is said to have written him, "If I couldn't write a harder book than this I wouldn't write any."

Henry Chambers of West Alexander tells of a problem that no one in the McGraw's Run school could get, not even the teacher, Jim Slade. A delegation was sent to see Mose, for he was considered the final authority in such cases. He studied and worked for a while, then with a hearty laugh said: "Here's one that Bill (he always referred to Joe as Bill) got wrong in the making."

Finally in 1883 after having lost the family farm, he went to New Mexico in search of gold. His health and hope of bettering his finances went at the same time, and in 1890, after several years of suffering from cancer, he died. When he did not return from the West the plot by the side of his parents in the old Dement cemetery at the head of Battle Run was given to his friend and namesake, Mose Tygart.

While Mose was slowly losing his grip on himself and the family farm Joseph was building a reputation that was to cast its shadow long after he had passed on. It was his love of mathematics and the teaching profession that kept him at Woodward High School longer than any of his coadjutors. But he was more than a teacher. He lost no opportunity to administer sympathetic and sincere counsel and by showing a living interest in the students he worked his way into their hearts. Old records tell of his frequent appearance on the playground where he took an active part in the games of the day. He gloried in his contact with youth, both in and out of the schoolroom.

He was intolerant of indifference and cheating, for, as he often expressed it, his aim was first of all "to build character." The officials of the institution were not slow to recognize his ability and rapidly advanced him. In 1851 he was elected to the presidency. By his example of energy and endless industry he inspired his pupils to action, and set for them a standard which few were able to equal and none to excel.

In 1833, soon after going to Woodward, Dr. Ray married Catherine Gano Burt, a member of a prominent Cincinnati family. One son was born to the union, and his descendants are still living in and around Cincinnati.

In addition to writing his texts Dr. Ray, with his colleague, William Holmes McGuffey, organized what has since become known as the teachers' institute, advocated the grading of schools, and insisted on a state superintendent of instruction. He also wrote for the educational journals and delivered countless lectures. Charles Mathew, one of his pupils and the man who completed the book which he had started when death overtook him, said: "In every line of duty he was conspicuous for unremitting industry, and in all his relations of life, his first desire was to be of service to others."

Dr. Ray had time to spare for charitable work. He was on the Board of Directors of the Cincinnati House of Refuge, and was an elder in the Disciple Church. It was during the cholera epidemic of 1849 that he weakened his constitution by taxing it to the breaking point in his effort to aid the sick and needy. He never fully recovered and died in 1855 at the age of forty-eight. He is buried at Cincinnati.

In the newspapers and educational journals of the spring of 1855 are to be found many tributes to the life and work of Dr Ray. The following resolution was adopted by the Alumni association of the Woodward High School as a mark of attachment to Dr. Ray, the first president of the institution:

Resolved, that we deeply condole with the family of the deceased in their bereavement, yet rejoice to know that their loss is his eternal gain.

Resolved, that in him we, in common with the cause of humanity, lost a friend whom the dangers of life's battles have ever found unwavering - that the institution has lost its greatest benefactor - and society a truly great man - whose life has been spent as he wished, in molding the character of the youth of the West - and who still lives, and will ever live in his works - that in him we have lost a warm personal friend, one who has watched over us with a father's care in the discharge of his responsible duties, the training of the immortal minds - and who was to us as the forest oak is to the vine, which seeks and finds upon his noble form the lone supporter of an onward and upward force.

Resolved, that as a last tribute to his memory, we attend the funeral in a body.

Resolved, that a copy of these resolutions be sent to the family of the deceased, that copies be offered to the papers for publication.

The general attitude toward arithmetic and the science of numbers changed rapidly and materially in the first half of the nineteenth century. Previous to 1800 arithmetic as such received precious little attention. Educators believed it had no cultural and little actual educational value. The truth is, that in some schools it was not even taught. The reforms of Pestalozzi pointed toward a revolution which culminated in the textbooks of Warren Colburn and Joseph Ray.

The respect for arithmetic which characterized the school systems of a generation later was due largely to the efforts of these men, and most, perhaps, to Ray. His texts led the list of best sellers until the last quarter of a century. Even now, with countless similar books on the market they are widely used. Their average yearly sale from 1903 to 1913 was 250,000. They were officially adopted by many states including Ohio, New York, and the New England states, and were used almost universally in West Virginia. As late as 1895 they were being used in practically every county of the State, and are still used in many. "I never even saw any other arithmetic until I attended a normal school in the '90's," declared D. L. Haught, dean of instruction at West Liberty Teachers' College. Of course, they have been revised many times, but always have Ray's principles been retained. More than 10,000 editions of the Practical Arithmetic have been published.

The explanation of this phenomenal popularity is obvious. Ray, to a large extent, was self educated, and in compiling his texts laid emphasis on those principles which had given him the most trouble. Earlier texts were little more than series of laws, principles, theories, and hypotheses entirely lacking in human interest. Ray's texts, on the other hand, were practical, and dealt with buying and selling such articles as sugar, tea, coffee, bacon, butter, and beer. The truth is, he revolutionized the teaching of mathematics by making it interesting. His aim, as he stated in the preface of one of his earlier books was: "to combine the clear explanatory methods of the French mathematicians with the practical exercises of the English and German, so that the pupil should acquire both a practical and theoretical knowledge of the subject."

His first book was published a little less than a hundred years ago, in 1834, just three years before McGuffey published his First Reader. It sold for six cents, and dealt in the main with mental drill. The problems required that the student think rapidly and accurately. Motivated by the success of his first volume Dr. Ray began the preparation of another book, which eventually became known as The Intellectual Arithmetic by Induction and Analysis. Revision and alterations as well as other books followed in rapid succession, until finally the series was known as Ray's Arithmetics, Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. The last revision was made in 1903 when the Practical Arithmetic of 1879 was changed to Ray's Higher Arithmetic.

Many interesting discoveries may be made by looking over these old arithmetics. Fractions were "vulgar" rather than common as today, and sugar was but two cents a pound, and paving cost but fifteen cents a square yard. Every school boy had to be able to gauge the contents of a barrel of beer, and to apply the "rule of three." Some may be able to recall:

"The Rules of 'Tear and Tret'
Which made boys swear and sweat."

The two following problems are typical of the series:

If sugar worth two and a half cents a pound, be mixed in equal quantities with sugar worth four and a half cents a pound, how many pounds of the mixture will be worth $1?

A man and his wife can drink a keg of beer in twelve days; when the man is away it lasts the woman thirty days; in what time can the man drink it alone?

Some of the problems in these early texts were given in verse. Here is one that dealt with the unpoetic subject of drunkenness:

A man that was idle and minded to spend
Both money and time, went to drink with his friend -

During the next ten lines he gets quite drunk:

To cast up his reckonings, but his head being sore
He begs you to do it, and he will do so no more.

The following applies Phythagoras' theorem:

A castle wall there was whose height was found
To be one hundred feet from top to ground
Against the wall the ladder stood upright
Of the same length the castle was in height.

A waggish youngster did the ladder slide
The bottom of it ten feet from the side,
Now, I would find how far the top did fall
By pulling out the ladder from the wall.

Ray's texts were included in the Eclectic Educational series and the personality of the author was lost in the virtue of the books. School boys did not refer to Ray's arithmetics, but simply to "Ray's," as if he were an institution, which, in fact, he was.

For many years prior to 1855 Dr. Ray had been looking forward to the compilation of a text book that would embrace the whole range of mathematics. It was a stupendous job, but he had much of the material collected when his untimely death occurred.

And so it was that he studied and taught up to the very end. Few men have done as much for the cause of education, and no man has done more for mathematics. His life was a noble example, his books have proven a precious legacy, and his memory a benediction.


West Virginia Archives and History