Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Baseball and the Fourth Dimension

Charles Howard Hinton was a British Mathematician who taught at Uppingham School in Rutland. One of his associates there also happened to be a close friend of Edwin Abbot, author of Flatland. That associate was Howard Candler, the "H.C." to whom Flatland was dedicated. Some sources credit Hinton as an inspiration for Flatland.  At any rate, in 1884 Hinton wrote an article titled "What is the Fourth Dimension?" as part of a series of nine pamphlets. (article is here)  Many years later he would create a set of colored blocks to aide in the study of the fourth dimension, and in 1888 he created the word Tesseraect, apparently while teaching in Japan.
1886 was an eventful year in his life.  He got his MA from Oxford, and got married to Maud Wheldon.  Unfortunately, it seems he was already married to Mary Ellen Boole, the daughter of  logician George Boole.  
Convicted of Bigamy at the Old Bailey in London, he served one day in prison (his sentence had been for three days?) before he skipped the country with first wife Mary Ellen.  He taught for awhile in Japan, (and it seems Mary Ellen also taught in Japan) and then showed up at Princeton University in 1893 as a Professor of Mathematics.  
 
early model of pitching gun
 
Somewhere along the way in Japan or America he must have developed an interest in baseball. In 1897 he invented a baseball pitching machine for the Princeton team that was operated by gunpowder.
The machine was featured in an article in Harper's Weekly, for March 20, 1897.  The machine had adjustable speeds and could throw curve balls by the use of two rubber coated "fingers" at the end of the muzzle.  The accuracy may have been somewhat in question as several batters seem to have been hurt by the machine.  The injured players may have been part of the reason his teaching contract at Princeton was cancelled in the same year.  He apparently was quite popular with students, who nicknamed him "bull", supposedly for his great strength. After a Pennsylvania-Princeton football game, Prof. Hinton became the hero of the students by physically throwing a large Pennsylvania supporter over a fence after the man had attempted to snatch a yellow chrysanthemum from Hinton's Coat. 

Hinton quickly packed up his mathbooks and batting machine and both showed up at the University of Minnesota the same year.  In 1900 he left his position in Minnesota and  moved to the US Naval Observatory in Washington D.C.  
For the next seven years he regularly discussed his fourth dimension views and possible applications at the Washington Philosophical Society.   It was at a meeting of the Society of Philanthropic Inquiry meeting  that he died in unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 30, 1907.  One source colorfully suggests that his death came when he died suddenly after being asked to give a toast to "female philosophers". 

Shortly after his death, a paper of his about baseball was printed, Hinton, Charles, "The Motion of a Baseball", The Yearbook of the Minneapolis Society of Engineers, May 1908, p. 18–28  (I would love a  copy of  this paper from anyone who might have access. 
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