Feature of the Month: Arithmetic Made Easy

Johnsons Arithmatick
John Johnson
London: A. Mathewes, 1623
[I DeM] L.1 [Johnson] SSR

John Johnson’s Arithmatick describes and illustrates the rules of arithmetic in brief, straightforward fashion. It arises at least in part out of a certain sense of frustration, Johnson writing about his section on fractions: “I have set them forth in plain and perfect figures after another manner of my own invention, because the fractional figures in most books of arithmetic were so unperfect that they were scarce to be discerned” (leaf A3v; spelling modernised). Johnson states that he is writing his book for the glory of God, the benefit of his country, and the furtherance of all who are interested in the art of numbers, and that he has: “laboured to set it forth in the most brief, plain, and easy manner that I could fit for the understanding of the weakest and meanest capacity. … I have endeavoured to make the rules as brief, short and easy as I could devise” (leaf A3r; spelling modernised). That he succeeded is suggested by the fact that the book entered its ninth edition in 1677.

Augustus De Morgan, the former owner of the Senate House Library copy, wrote a note dated 26 September 1853 which he pasted in the front: “Johnson’s Arithmetic, 1623, … is the first work in which decimal fract[io]ns  were explained in English except only the translation of Stevinus. It was wholly unknown till I brought it forward, and I never saw any copy of the first edition except this”. He cannot have seen that copy until 1847 or later, for De Morgan’s bibliography Arithmetical Books from the Invention of Printing to the Present Time (1847) notes only the second edition, of 1633 (and that in his appendix, “Additions”). De Morgan’s published verdict on the second edition is reserved: “In his decimal fractions, Johnson has the rudest form of notation … . Otherwise, his system is tolerably complete” (p. 105).

It is hardly surprising that De Morgan had seen no other copies, for the work remains scarce (a standard fate of textbooks): ESTC records only two copies of this issue other than the Senate House Library copy (one each in England and America), with a third copy bearing a different imprint. Johnson himself (fl. 1602-1657), a surveyor, is now a little-known figure, who survives apart from this popular book only from a series of almanacs for the years 1611-1624.

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