Hermann Grassmann

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Hermann Günther Grassmann (April 15, 1809, Stettin (Szczecin) – September 26, 1877, Stettin) was a German polymath, renowned in his day as a linguist and now admired as a mathematician. He was also a physicist, neohumanist, general scholar, and publisher. His mathematical work was not recognized in his lifetime.



Grassmann was the third of 12 children of Justus Günter Grassmann, an ordained minister who taught mathematics and physics at the Stettin Gymnasium, where Hermann was educated. Hermann often collaborated with his brother Robert.

Grassmann was an undistinguished student until he obtained a high mark on the examinations for admission to Prussian universities. Beginning in 1827, he studied theology at the University of Berlin, also taking classes in classical languages, philosophy, and literature. He does not appear to have taken courses in mathematics or physics.

Although lacking university training in mathematics, it was the field that most interested him when he returned to Stettin in 1830 after completing his studies in Berlin. After a year of preparation, he sat the examinations needed to teach mathematics in a gymnasium, but achieved a result good enough to allow him to teach only at the lower levels. In the spring of 1832, he was made an assistant at the Stettin Gymnasium. Around this time, he made his first significant mathematical discoveries, ones that led him to the important ideas he set out in his 1844 paper referred to as A1 (see below).

In 1834 Grassmann began teaching mathematics at the Gewerbeschule in Berlin. A year later, he returned to Stettin to teach mathematics, physics, German, Latin, and religious studies at a new school, the Otto Schule. This wide range of topics reveals again that he was qualified to teach only at a low level. Over the next four years, Grassmann passed examinations enabling him to teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, and mineralogy at all secondary school levels.

Grassmann felt somewhat aggrieved that he was writing innovative mathematics, but taught only in secondary schools. Yet he did rise in rank, even while never leaving Stettin. In 1847, he was made an "Oberlehrer" or head teacher. In 1852, he was appointed to his late father's position at the Stettin Gymnasium, thereby acquiring the title of Professor. In 1847, he asked the Prussian Ministry of Education to be considered for a university position, whereupon that Ministry asked Kummer for his opinion of Grassmann. Kummer wrote back saying that Grassmann's 1846 prize essay (see below) contained "... commendably good material expressed in a deficient form." Kummer's report ended any chance that Grassmann might obtain a university post. This episode proved the norm; time and again, leading figures of Grassmann's day failed to recognize the value of his mathematics.

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