Thursday 26 January 2023

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 Tesseract, apparently while teaching in Japan.

Hinton created several new words to describe elements in the fourth dimension. According to OED, he first used the word tesseract in 1888 in his book A New Era of Thought. He also invented the words "kata" (from the Greek "down from") and "ana" (from the Greek "up toward") to describe the two opposing fourth-dimensional directions—the 4-D equivalents of left and right, forwards and backwards, and up and down.  

"It MUST be pointed out that there is a very steely concretized example of the Hinton tesseract that is still around, brought into existence by one of Hinton's sons. Sebastian Hinton (1887-1923) was a lawyer in Chicago who hit on an idea of bringing his father's work somewhat into the hands of the public-at-large--specifically, into the hands of children, who would be able to play and climb and swing in Charles' fourth dimensional idea.  He applied for a patent in 1920 which was granted in 1923."

"Evidently the term "monkey bars" didn't take hold until the 1950's, though Hinton referred to "monkey-like play" in his patent application. Also Charles had built a version of these of bamboo for the children to play on and help them understand the concept of moving through three dimensional space.  " *JF Ptak Science Books 

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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