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Number Stories of Long Ago (1919)
David Eugene Smith

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A really beautiful, well-crafted book which presents a very wide variety of aspects of the history of number theory through fictional stories from Mesopotamia, Rome, Egypt, China, and many other places, ranging over different concepts and notations of a number, the operations on numbers, etc, all told over fireside evenings to a few children by “The Story-Teller”. But don’t get this wrong: it is a book which adults will enjoy very profitably as well, and children will find attractive. Heartily recommend it to all. As the wonderful first preface (there are two) says:

(quoted from Number Stories of Long Ago)


These are the stories that were really told in the crisp autumn evenings, the Story-Teller sitting by the fire that burned in the great fireplace in the cottage by the sea. These are the stories as he told them to the Tease and the rest of the circle of friends known as the Crowd. Sitting by the fire and listening to the stories, in the lights and shadows of the dancing flames they could see the forms of Ching and Lugal and all the rest with their curious dress of long ago. Night after night he told these tales of the ages past, stories unlike the make-believes they had often heard, stories of what might really have happened when the world was young, stories that the Crowd said were “different” because they told of much that was new, much that was curious, and much that was

interesting. So the Crowd learned many strange things that have happened in Number Land, but they learned much more than this. For the Story-Teller told them much that was interesting about the way in which boys and girls used to write in centuries long past—how Ching wrote on palm leaves, and Lugal on bricks and Hippias on parchment. He also told them about many of the number puzzles that have delighted boys and girls for thousands of years, so that the Tease found new tricks to play on all her friends, and the Crowd found much to think about as the stories were related by the great log fire.

And you who read these stories should imagine yourselves sitting by the great log fire and listening to the Story-Teller. You should seem to see in the flames and the shadows the moving pictures of those who played their parts in Number Land when the world was learning as you do. Is this history? Never mind. What is history but a story, and is not every story a history of something? Why bother our heads over history? For us the story is the important thing.

The author published a separate book in the same year, “Number Puzzles Before the Log Fire” which contains the solutions to the puzzles in the “Number Stories” book.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to Number Stories of Long Ago
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Number Stories: Learning Arithmetic Through the Adventures of Ralph and His Schoolmates by Alhambra G. Deming
  2. The Man Who Counted : A Collection of Mathematical Adventures by Malba Tahan
  3. Los relatos de Gudor Ben Jusá: Cuentos y consejas con algo de matemáticas más son pocas y de las viejas by Juan de Burgos Román
  4. L.A. Math: Romance, Crime and Mathematics in the City of Angels by James D. Stein
  5. Intoxicating Heights (Höhenrausch. Die Mathematik des XX. Jahrhunderts in zwanzig Gehirnen) by Dietmar Dath
  6. Riot at the Calc Exam and Other Mathematically Bent Stories by Colin Adams
  7. Fantasia Mathematica : Being a Set of Stories, Together With a Group of Oddments and Diversions, All Drawn from ... by Clifton Fadiman (editor)
  8. Mathe-Matti by Anuradha Mahasinghe
  9. The Mathematics of Magic by L. Sprague de Camp / Fletcher Pratt
  10. Reality Conditions: short mathematical fiction by Alex Kasman
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GenreHistorical Fiction, Didactic, Children's Literature,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories, Collection,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)