Early History of the Oliver Club

by William C. Waterhouse
Department of , Penn State University
(formerly Department of , Cornell University)
November 1971
Reproduced here with the author's permission.

James Edward Oliver, second chairman of the department, organized the Mathematical Club of Cornell University in January 1891 as a forum for discussion of mathematics outside the regular curriculum by department faculty and students. The club was to meet in people's houses on Friday or Saturday evening for a couple of hours and each time have a formal talk followed by discussion. To take into account the wide variation of knowledge of the participants, Professor Oliver thought in terms of two sections of the club meeting in alternate weeks. Section A would deal with mathematics beyond differential calculus, and Section B would deal with the rest — geometry, trigonometry, number theory, and so on. A committee prepared a constitution to this effect, and members of the department met, presumably in Professor Oliver's house, on January 24. The minutes of the first meeting read as follows:

"The first regular meeting of the Mathematical Club was called to order by Professor Oliver at eight o'clock, Saturday evening, January 24, 1891. On a motion it was decided to proceed with the business of organization before listening to the mathematical reports.

"In the absence of the Chairman of the Committee on Organization, Mr. Tanner read the constitution the committee had drawn up. After this first reading, it was read again, this time section by section, and was amended and adopted. After the adoption of the constitution, the election of officers was declared in order. Professor Oliver was chosen president by acclamation. Professor Hathaway and Mr. Fowler were elected to the governing committee. The choice of secretaries was left to the two sections at their separate meetings.

"This business having been disposed of, Mr. Fowler gave the club an interesting talk on Riemann's plane. In the discussion that followed, Professor Oliver mentioned the great beauty and use of this mode of representing a complex variable.

"By this time it had grown late, and it was decided to postpone Professor Hathaway's report. Those present were declared members of the club and were asked to sign their names to the constitution. The committee on organization was instructed to put the constitution into shape and to report at the next meeting. The meeting of Section A was set down for January 31. The club then adjourned.

Paul Laurel
Secretary pro. tem."

Section A met fairly regularly every two weeks while the university was in session through May 1894. The book of minutes provides detail about the lectures. The topics were rather elementary, considering the extraordinary advances made in mathematical research in the 1880s. For example, there were talks on the geometric nature of the mapping w=e^z, on linear fractional transformations, on special types of ordinary differential equations, and on evaluation of indefinite integrals. Occasionally, either the speaker or the secretary (probably the latter) would go astray. In the minutes for 1892–1893, for example, appears the passage:

"The club met in joint session at the house of the president, Prof. Oliver, Oct. 21. … The president then interested the club by presenting several mathematical recreations, as the coloring of maps and various figures, showing that any figure can be colored with 4 different colors, and that 4 colors are needed for complex figures. After adjournment, the club was very pleasantly entertained by Prof. and Mrs. Oliver.

E. C. Townsend

Section B, meanwhile, met less regularly, but aimed for a meeting every other week. There are hints in the minutes that Section A looked down on Section B, but the quality of the talks did not justify such an attitude. The titles of Section B talks include "The permanence of equivalent (quadratic) forms," "Economy of logarithmic computations," and "Directed arcs and the general spherical triangle." The secretary of Section B took attendance until the end of 1892–1893, and attendance fluctuated between 3 and 12. The last meeting of Section B was April 21, 1894.

Professor Oliver died in 1895, while still chairman, and the Mathematical Club stopped functioning. In 1898 the club reappeared bearing the name "Oliver Mathematical Club of Cornell University." The first talk was October 10, 1898, by J. I. Hutchinson on "Some theorems concerning the Hessian of the cubic surface." No longer were there two sections; the club met every other week, and each speaker wrote an abstract of his talk in the minutes. The lectures were now more research-oriented and showed a marked increase in sophistication. The main subjects of the lectures in the beginning were algebraic geometry and finite groups. Most of the talks on the latter were presented by the noted group theorist G. A. Miller. One of Miller's talks detailed the progress to 1900 on the problem of deciding whether all finite groups of odd order are solvable. The last entry in the early minutes is for May 20, 1901, but it is likely that the Oliver Club continued, without essential interruption, to the present day.

There is one further document in the early records, a note dated March 24, 1930, revealing the topic of the lectures at that time:

"At the next meeting of the Oliver Mathematical Club, Professor Hurwitz will continue the discussion of Murnaghan up to page 67.

C. C. Torrance

"P. S. If there is anyone who can be allured, animated, aroused, attracted, bribed, bulldozed, cajoled, coaxed, coerced, compelled, decoyed, dragged, drawn, driven, drummed, emboldened, encouraged, enmeshed, ensnared, enticed, flattered, frightened, goaded, hoaxed, hoodwinked, impelled, incited, induced, inspired, instigated, inveighed, lured, moved, nerved, persuaded, pressed, quickened, stimulated, spurred, stirred, swayed, tempted, terrorized, threatened, tricked, urged, wheedled, or otherwise influenced by blandishment, drugs, duress, or lucre into giving a talk on Murnaghan on May 29, will he or she please communicate with the secretary."

The book in question is probably Vector Analysis and the Theory of Relativity, Johns Hopkins Press, 1922.

The department files contain a complete list of the Oliver Club lectures from 1939 to date. The practice of having speakers from outside Cornell began in moderation in 1940, with two or three such people a year for several years, and blossomed in 1948 with seven. In that year there is the first mention of honoraria. Five of the seven visitors received $10 apiece.

Constitution of the Mathematical Club of Cornell University

Article I. Name.

The name of this organization shall be "The Mathematical Club of Cornell University

Article II. Object.

The object of the club is mutual association, and discussion of mathematical questions of interest.

Article III. Officers; Duties of; Election of; etc.

Sec. 1. The officers of the club shall be a President, a Secretary for each division, and a Standing Committee of three, of which the President shall be ex-officio Chairman.

Sec. 2. The President shall preside at all meetings. The Secretary shall keep a record of the transaction of his division of the club. The Standing Committee shall arrange the programmes for the meetings of the Club.

Sec. 3. The term of office for the above-named officers shall be one year.

Sec. 4. The officers shall be elected by a majority vote of the members of the club present at the first regular meeting of each calendar year.

Sec. 5. If at any time a vacancy in any office occur such vacancy shall be filled, by election, at the next regular meeting.

Article IV. Members; Eligibility; Election of; etc.

Sec. 1. Any member of the University who is in sympathy with the work of the club shall be eligible to membership therein.

Sec. 2. Any eligible person may be a candidate for either division of the club; and is to be elected by a majority vote of that division before which his name is proposed by the standing committee.

Sec. 3. There shall be two divisions of the club, the dividing line being drawn at an elementary knowledge of the differential calculus.

Article V. Meetings.

The regular meetings of each division shall be biweekly; but a meeting of the entire club may take the place of the meeting of either division, subject to call of the standing committee. [It is also tacitly understood that the secretary of division "A" shall at a joint meeting of the club act as secretary for such meeting.]

Article VI. Amendments.

This constitution may be amended by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the members present at a joint meeting of the two divisions.

Amendment to Article III, Sec. 1, passed January 16, 1892.

The officers of the club shall be a President, a Secretary for each division, and a Standing Committee of five, consisting of the President and the two Secretaries, ex-officio, and two other members chosen by the club. The President shall be chairman of the Standing Committee and two members including the chairman shall be a quorum of the committee.