Eric Temple Bell


Born: 7 February 1883 in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Died: 21 December 1960 in Watsonville, California, USA


Eric Temple Bell's parents were Helen Jane Lindsay Lyall and James Bell. James was a fish-curer and fruit grower, a fact which E T Bell did not mention in his autobiographical writings. For some reason he chose to hide the first part of his life, even from his own son and his wife. Eric was the younger of his parents' two sons, the elder being James Redward Bell. He also had a sister Enid Lyall Bell. In 1884 the family left Scotland for the United States where they lived in San José in California. After the death of Bell's father on 4 January 1896, Eric returned to Britain with his mother, sister and older brother. From 1898 Bell attended Bedford Modern School where excellent mathematics teaching gave him his life-long interest in the subject. In particular, his interest in number theory came from this time. He wrote [21]:-

My interest in mathematics began with two school prizes, one in Greek, the other for physical laboratory, both richly bound in full calf. The Greek prize was Clerk Maxwell's classic on electricity and magnetism, the other, Homer's Odyssey. My cousin got the prize for Greek, I got the other. He read mine, I tried, and failed, to read his. The integral signs were particularly baffling to one who had not gone beyond the binomial theorem for a positive integral exponent. The calculus was not a school subject at the time, so my mother paid for private lessons from a man - the late Edward Mann Langley - who was the best teacher I ever had. From him I learned what dy/dx and y dx mean. The rest was comparatively easy, and I found myself in possession of a key that unlocks a hundred doors.

Edward Mann Langley (1851-1933) taught at Bedford Modern School from 1878 to 1918. He wrote many mathematics textbooks during these years and founded the Mathematical Gazette in 1894. In 1902 Bell, but not the rest of his family, returned to the United States. He says in his autobiographical writing that he left England:-

... to escape being shoved into Woolwich or the India Civil Service.

He entered Stanford University in 1902, being awarded an A.B. with honours in mathematics two years later. For the next three years he supported himself in San Francisco teaching at a private preparatory school. On 18 April 1906 San Francisco was hit by a major earthquake. Following the earthquake much of central San Francisco was destroyed by a fire. Bell realised that the boarding house he was living in was about to be destroyed by fire and, to save his precious books, he buried them in the garden. In particular he buried his most treasured number theory book, Édouard Lucas's Théorie des Nombres (1891). His efforts were only partially successful since he did not bury the books deep enough to avoid the extreme heat of the fire. For the rest of his life he kept these treasured books, still readable but badly scorched by the fire. He then studied for his Master's Degree at the University of Washington in Seattle which he entered in 1907 having been awarded a Denny Fellowship. In the spring of 1908 he was awarded an M.A. and then moved to San José where, in an attempt to make some money, he wrote his first science fiction novel. From 1909 to 1911 he taught at Yreka High School in Yreka, Siskayou County in northern California. This school, which had been established in 1893, was destroyed by fire in 1916, five years after Bell left. He received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1912, after one year of study, for the dissertation The Cyclotomic Quinary Quintic. In this work Bell further developed Eisenstein's extension of Gauss's determination of the regular polygons constructible with straight edge and compasses only. At Columbia his doctoral work was supervised by Cassius Jackson Keyser (1862-1947). Two years before he received his doctorate, at the end of 1910, Bell married Jessie Lillian Smith Brown who was a widow he had met at Yreka High School where she taught art and commercial subjects. They had one son who they named Taine Temple Bell, born on 27 September 1917. Constance Reid writes in [62] that Bell's wife:-

... was described as "putting starch" into him. To friends they seemed almost like one person. It is thus especially strange that he never told her the details of his family background or his early life.

Their son Taine [62]:-

... enjoyed a certain notoriety as a child after he observed a cross on a church steeple and asked what they'd put the plus-sign up there for.

Taine did not follow his father into mathematics but became a medical doctor. His father was very unhappy and considered his son a failure for not obtaining a Ph.D.

Bell taught mathematics at the University of Washington from 1912 being appointed first as an Instructor but rose to the rank of Professor over the fourteen years he taught at the university. It was at the University of Washington that Bell gained a reputation as one of the leading mathematicians in the United States. Most of his research was into the theory of numbers, the area of mathematics that he loved most dearly. The American Mathematical Society awarded him their Bôcher Memorial Prize in 1924 for his memoir, Arithmetical paraphrases which had appeared in the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society in 1921. In 1922 one of Bell's students began to show remarkable abilities, this student being Howard Percy Robertson. Having he graduated with his bachelor's degree in 1922, Robertson began studying for his master's degree and took Bell's course on mechanics. Bell wrote to his former student Harold Hotelling, who had graduated from the University of Washington in 1919, on 3 April 1922 (see [42]):-

[Robertson] was just 19 last month, and he goes through the most difficult problems and theory like a shot. Even complicated set-ups in problems by Lagrange's equations don't bother him in the least ... Robertson is a prize.

Bell had found the theory of relativity particularly stimulating and gave a course that was taken by Robertson. Bell confided in Hotelling that if he had not sunk fifteen years of his life into number theory, he would have loved to undertake research into relativity theory. He did persuade Robertson that this was a fascinating topic and, with Bell's encouragement, he went on to make a name for himself in this and related areas.

In 1924 Bell was appointed to the Council of the American Mathematical Society. He became vice-president of the Society in 1926. The award of the Bôcher Prize, and his growing reputation, saw Bell receive offers of professorships from several universities including the University of Michigan, Bryn Mawr University, and Columbia University. Bell neither accepted nor rejected these offers but tried to keep them open. In the summer 1925 he lectured at the University of Chicago on his research while in the autumn he lectured at Harvard. Chicago tried to entice him to accept a professorship there but in early 1926 the experimental physicist Robert A Millikan from the California Institute of Technology got permission from the University Council to do everything possible to attract Bell to Caltech. Millikan had sought advice on Bell from L E Dickson, G D Birkhoff and Oswald Veblen beginning late in 1924, in particular asking if he was National Academy of Sciences standard. Dickson had praised him highly, suggesting that Bell would be elected to the National Academy of Sciences before his colleague Harry Bateman, while G D Birkhoff had been less enthusiastic writing:-

... outside his specialty, his work is not always of high order.

After an initial approach from Millikan, Bell played off a good offer from Columbia University to get an improved offer from Caltech. After a month negotiating, he accepted an offer from Caltech which was less than that offered by Columbia but he preferred to accept [42]:-

... Millikan's invitation to come to Caltech because the Institute had already acquired a certain cachet in scientific circles and, perhaps just as important, because it was situated on the West Coast.

He was appointed professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology in 1926, holding that post until illness forced him to retire a year before his death. Dickson's prediction that Bell would soon be elected to the National Academy of Sciences proved correct: he was elected in 1927, three years before Bateman. Also in 1927 Bell was invited to give the American Mathematical Society Colloquium Lecture. He delivered the lecture on 'Algebraic arithmetic'.

The Depression made life hard at Caltech as it did everywhere. Bell wrote to Veblen in 1931 explaining he had no funds to invite him to visit (see for example [42]):-

I fear it is out of the question. The financial stringency has hit us hard. The mathematicians never did have any funds available to pay outside lecturers. The one time when we did pay a lecturer, namely Harald Bohr, was provided for by a crumb dropped from the physicists' banquet. ... I was to have got a new man this year, but the money wasn't forthcoming. In the past they have usually paid railway fare to essential meetings; this year that also is cut out, so I shall have to pay my way to New Orleans. However, this depression can't last forever.

Bell had the honour of being elected President of the Mathematical Association of America and he held the position during the years 1931-33. As President, he published problems and reviews in the American Mathematical Monthly.

Bell wrote several popular books on the history of mathematics. He also made contributions to analytic number theory, Diophantine analysis and numerical functions. Two concepts which bear his name are the 'Bell numbers' and the 'Bell polynomials'. These were introduced in his papers Exponential Numbers and Exponential Polynomials, both published in 1934. Although he wrote 250 research papers, including the one which received the Bôcher Memorial Prize, Bell is best remembered for his popular books, and therefore as an historian of mathematics.

His book Algebraic Arithmetic (1927) was not one of these popular works but an important research monograph. L E Dickson, reviewing the book writes [37]:-

A central feature is the new presentation of the author's principle of arithmetical paraphrases, which won him the Bôcher prize in 1924, jointly with Professor Lefschetz. ... This original and scholarly book is an honour to American mathematics.

The Development of Mathematics (1940) was also written at a higher level than his popular works. Bell explained that he had chosen his material for this book:-

... after consultation with numerous professionals who knew from hard personal experience what mathematical invention means. On their advice, only main trends of the past thousand years are considered, and these are presented only through typical major episodes in each.

D J Struik, reviewing The Development of Mathematics writes:-

The experience of the author as a creative mathematician, a teacher and interested colleague has made it possible to place lively comments, pithy summaries and challenging outlooks between an otherwise factual survey of achievements. These surveys have unequal merits, excelling in arithmetic and algebra and in related fields, and losing their completeness somewhat in regions less professionally familiar to the author.

Many of his popular works became classics. At this level Bell wrote books which included Men of Mathematics (1937) and Mathematics, Queen and Servant of Science (1951).

A Broadbent, see [24], described Bell and his writing in the following way:-

His style is clear and exuberant, his opinions, whether we agree with them or not, are expressed forcefully, often with humour and a little gentle malice. He was no uncritical hero-worshipper being as quick to mark the opportunity lost as the ground gained, so that from his books we get a vision of mathematics as a high activity of the questing human mind, often fallible, but always pressing on the never-ending search for mathematical truth.

Kenneth O May has written:-

[Bell's] insights and provocative style continue to influence and intrigue professional mathematicians - in spite of their historical inaccuracies and sometimes fanciful interpretations.

Another historian of mathematics, Ann Hibner Koblitz, is much less kind in her remarks:-

[Bell] might well become known to future generations of mathematicians and historians as the legend maker of the history of mathematics. It is to him that mathematicians are largely indebted for distorted impressions of their predecessors.

Roger L Cooke has written that Bell's description of Sofia Kovalevskaya is an:-

... infuriatingly patronising, innuendo-laden mistreatment.

In addition to popular and high-level books, Bell also wrote many papers in which he gave his strong, often provocative, views on many subjects.

Bell did not confine his writing to mathematics and he also published sixteen science fiction novels under the name John Taine [3]:-

... the excuse, Bell himself once wrote, being that if these popular novels made money, some publishers might be interested in more serious books.

Given the remarkable mathematical output of Bell, it is amazing that he was able to write two or three science fiction books each year. He did this in the Christmas and summer vacations, usually taking only three or four weeks to write each book. He was helped by his wife who typed and edited the books from Bell's manuscripts. Most of his science fiction books were written between 1920 and 1940 [71]:-

Bell's science fiction is distinguished by its violence. It abounds in overwhelming catastrophes of nature, prehistoric reptilian monsters, men turned into brute beasts and men turned into masses of fungoid growth. All these juicy horrors are described in such hair-raising detail and with such devilish pleasure that Bell's books almost all land in the can't-put-it-down class - even for some of Bell's squeamish academic colleagues who never meant to take them up at all.

Among his first works to prove great successes were The Purple Sapphire (1924), Green Fire (1928), The Greatest Adventure (1930), and Before the Dawn (1934). Although Bell (as John Taine) was known as one of the leading science fiction writers of his day, these books have not become classics and are today little read.

Most people knew that Bell and Taine were the same man but the editor of the Pasadena Star-News decided to make a joke of it by asking John Taine to review E T Bell's 1934 book The Magic of Numbers. Taine said in his review that he agreed with the description on the cover of the book that:-

... with matchless wit and insight, Eric Temple Bell has made 'The Magic of Numbers' ... a human history ... a living biography of the men who played and play so great a part in one scientific and philosophical development.

One reader of the Pasadena Star-News was not in on the joke and she complained to the editor of the paper saying it was an insult to Dr Bell to have his book reviewed by a science fiction writer!

Finally we should mention Bell's other interests. He wrote several volumes of poetry, and perhaps this was his greatest love, but he never received any real recognition for it. He tried repeatedly to get them published with little success. Two volumes of poetry, Recreations and The Singer he published at his own expense. He also loved painting, gardening and raising cats [71]:-

His paintings, with those of his late wife, cover the walls of his home in Pasadena. The Bell garden, in its heyday, was ablaze with flowers even at that time of year when the neighbors were trying to force up a couple of crocuses. And even the Bell cats seemed somehow bigger and more prolific than most cats.

Bell spent the last year of his life in Watsonville hospital. He had a room there in which he had his books, reprints, novels and his popular mathematics books. However, he spent most of the days reading poetry. Often he would have a kitten on his bed. At first he smoked cigars but after he set the bed on fire he was told that he could only smoke if someone else was in the room. He died in the hospital fifteen days after signing the contract to have The Last Problem published by Simon and Schuster.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

January 2015


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Bell.html]