Graph theory in America 1876-1950

Parks, David J. (2012). Graph theory in America 1876-1950. PhD thesis The Open University.



This narrative is a history of the contributions made to graph theory in the United States of America by American mathematicians and others who supported the growth of scholarship in that country, between the years 1876 and 1950.

The beginning of this period coincided with the opening of the first research university in the United States of America, The Johns Hopkins University (although undergraduates were also taught), providing the facilities and impetus for the development of new ideas. The hiring, from England, of one of the foremost mathematicians of the time provided the necessary motivation for research and development for a new generation of American scholars. In addition, it was at this time that home-grown research mathematicians were first coming to prominence.

At the beginning of the twentieth century European interest in graph theory, and to some extent the four-colour problem, began to wane. Over three decades, American mathematicians took up this field of study - notably, Oswald Veblen, George Birkhoff, Philip Franklin, and Hassler Whitney. It is necessary to stress that these four mathematicians and all the other scholars mentioned in this history were not just graph theorists but worked in many other disciplines. Indeed, they not only made significant contributions to diverse fields but, in some cases, they created those fields themselves and set the standards for others to follow. Moreover, whilst they made considerable contributions to graph theory in general, two of them developed important ideas in connection with the four-colour problem. Grounded in a paper by Alfred Bray Kempe that was notorious for its fallacious 'proof' of the four-colour theorem, these ideas were the concepts of an unavoidable set and a reducible configuration.

To place the story of these scholars within the history of mathematics, America, and graph theory, brief accounts are presented of the early years of graph theory, the early years of mathematics and graph theory in the USA, and the effects of the founding of the first institute for postgraduate study in America. Additionally, information has been included on other influences by such global events as the two world wars, the depression, the influx of European scholars into the United States of America, mainly during the 1930s, and the parallel development of graph theory in Europe.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, graph theory had been almost entirely the prerogative of European mathematicians. Perhaps the first work in graph theory carried out in America was by Charles Sanders Peirce, arguably America's greatest logician and philosopher at the time. In the 1860s, he studied the four-colour conjecture and claimed to have written at least two papers on the subject during that decade, but unfortunately neither of these has survived. William Edward Story entered the field in 1879, with unfortunate consequences, but it was not until 1897 that an American mathematician presented a lecture on the subject, albeit only to have the paper disappear. Paul Wernicke presented a lecture on the four-colour problem to the American Mathematician Society, but again the paper has not survived. However, his 1904 paper has survived and added to the story of graph theory, and particularly the four-colour conjecture.

The year 1912 saw the real beginning of American graph theory with Veblen and Birkhoff publishing major contributions to the subject. It was around this time that European mathematicians appeared to lose interest in graph theory. In the period 1912 to 1950 much of the progress made in the subject was from America and by 1950 not only had the United States of America become the foremost country for mathematics, it was the leading centre for graph theory.

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