1911 Algebra Problems: The Lusitania and Molasses

15-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Thursday, March 2, 1911:  Dear me, what shall I write? Mrs. Hester was out this afternoon. I intended to work thirty-one algebra problems this evening or rather tonight but instead of that I only worked one. Perhaps I may get the remaining thirty tomorrow, but it is only perhaps.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later: 

Sometimes I have a vague idea about what I might say about a diary entry—and then I discover something interesting that sends my post in a totally different direction. Today is one of those days—

I found a high school algebra textbook published in 1911 at the library and idly flipped through the pages while pondering—Should I include some example problems from the chapter on Simple Equations  . . . or from the chapter on Quadratic Equations? And then I saw the problem on the Lusitania:

4. One ton of coal will make 8.7 tons of steam. If the Lusitania requires 1200 tons of coal a day for this purpose, how many tons of steam are required for an hour?

First Year Algebra (1911, page 157) by William J. Milne


Wait—Isn’t the Lusitania famous because it was sunk  during World War I by the Germans  in 1915? Why was the Lusitania in a textbook published in 1911?

And, as I sought answers, this post  headed in a totally different direction.

The Lusitania was a British ship that made its first trans-Atlantic trip in 1907—and it periodically held the world record as the fastest ship to make the crossing. For example, in October 1907, it held the record for an eastbound trip with a time of 4 days, 19 hours, and 53 minutes. The average speed was 24 knots/hr. (27.6 miles/hr.).

(Cruise ships today don’t cross the Atlantic as quickly as they did a hundred years ago. It now takes at least 6-7 days to make the crossing. I guess that if  someone wants to cross quickly they just fly.)

In the early 1900s there were several very fast ships that held the record at one time or another. They informally competed with one each other and the newspapers regularly reported on when the ships entered the New York harbor –or  the harbors in England on eastward trips– since there was the potential with every trans-Atlantic voyage that the world record would be broken.

A hundred years ago the general public across the US knew about the Lusitania and were following its story even before it was sunk by a German torpedo. (And, the Lusitania was apparently considered a good topic for an algebra problem since it was a timely, high-interest topic that might motivate students ).

Algebra problems provide lots of hints about what was common knowledge a hundred years ago. For example, would you ever find a problem about molasses pumps and tubing in a text today? Well, it provided the context for the word problem that followed the Lusitania problem in the 1911 textbook:

5. A grocer paid $8.50 for a molasses pump and 5 feet of tubing. He paid 12 times as much for the pump as for each foot of tubing. How much did the pump cost? the tubing?

First Year Algebra (1911, page 157) by William J. Milne

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