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Robert Recorde, Inventor of the Equals Sign

In the 16th century, British mathematics was somewhat lacking compared to other advanced nations in Europe. However, a doctor and math instructor named Robert Recorde did his best to equalize things, and invented one of the most important symbols in all of mathematics: the equals sign.

Recorde was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, in 1510. Although there is scant knowledge regarding his youth, he reportedly “descended from a respectable family,” according to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. He attended Oxford and Cambridge universities and then is believed to have taught at both venues before relocating to London, where he practiced medicine.

Some accounts hold that Recorde was a personal doctor to royalty, but this has been disputed. Either way, he authored a medical work called The Urinal of Physick, which instructed readers on how to make a diagnosis by observing a given sample of urine. Now an obsolete tract, it might be considered a minor classic in the genre of urological literature.

Of course, Recorde’s writing went far beyond urine. He also became a popular author of mathematical books. They were written in the English vernacular, as opposed to the Latin that most scholarly works (especially scientific and mathematical ones) were published in at the time. Writing for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Joy B. Easton tells how Recorde wrote “simple, clear English prose of a higher quality than his scientific contemporaries.”

His 1543 endeavor, The Ground of Artes, was, in its time, his most popular work. This book, which the author admittedly intended for “the symple ignorant” reader, focused on elementary arithmetic and included an added section to assist merchants in using the abacus. He later published the Pathwaie to Knowledge, which involved elementary geometry based on Euclid’s Elements.

Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

His following effort, The Castle of Knowledge, was a book on astronomy, which astutely included Nicolaus Copernicus’s new theory of heliocentricity, where the Earth revolved around the Sun, as opposed to the other way around, which had been the longstanding and ferociously maintained contention.

Recorde’s most famous book now is The Whetstone of Witte, which involved advanced arithmetic and algebra. This is the text where he introduces the equals symbol (=), which would forever change mathematics. His stated reason for choosing such a symbol was “bicause noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle.”

The Whetstone of Witte also saw the introduction of a term called “zenzizenzizenzic,” which was intended to represent a quantity raised to the eighth power. As Recorde wrote, zenzizenzizenzic “doeth represent the square of squares squaredly.” For rather obvious reasons, this clumsy term failed to catch on as well as the equals sign did. Even brilliant minds can be hit or miss.

In addition to math and medicine, Recorde was a fine scholar of classical and medieval documents. He also took part in governmental affairs, serving as a comptroller of the Bristol Mint. In this role, he encountered trouble, for he refused to divert currency to the future Earl of Pembroke. The Earl, incensed by the refusal, accused the mathematician of treason. Though Recorde would serve two months in captivity, he escaped with his head intact. But he was holding a serious grudge.

William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke. Image credit: Museum of Wales via Wikipedia // Public Domain

In 1556, Recorde issued a formal charge of malfeasance against the Earl. In turn, the Earl appealed to Queen Mary and King Philip, who, judging that the Earl was far more important than a mathematician, made sure that the legal system would go its proper way.

However legitimate his grievance may have been, Recorde was injudicious in making the accusation. It is curious that such a bright man would engage in a pursuit so reckless. Apparently, his brightness was clouded by indignation.

On February 10, 1557, Recorde was fined £1000 for slander against the Earl. This was no small sum of money in the 16th century, and for Recorde it would prove an unsolvable problem. He eked out the remainder of his days at the King's Bench Prison in Southwark, London.

Dying at age 48, he left behind his intentions to write books on surveying and navigation. However, his existing books had become a staple of learning in Elizabethan England. Multiple generations of English scientists would credit Recorde with having elucidated mathematics for them.

About 100 years after his invention of the equals sign, the symbol had gained “general acceptance” in England, according to a Mathematics Teacher magazine article by Vera Sanford. By the 18th century, it had become standard in Europe.

But by writing in English instead of Latin, Recorde largely had sacrificed an international scholarly reputation. And he sacrificed his freedom by failing to acknowledge the privileged standing of the Earl—someone with whom he could never be equal.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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