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Lincoln no slouch at school, profs say, citing math notebook pages

| Friday, June 7, 2013, 6:27 p.m.
This undated photo provided by permission of the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., shows one of two pages from the library's archives that Illinois State University math professors Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements on Friday, June 7, 2013 confirmed as two new pages to add to the math notebook believed to be the oldest surviving document written by Abraham Lincoln.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two math-notebook pages recently authenticated as belonging to Abraham Lincoln suggest the 16th president, who was known to downplay his formal education, may have spent more time in school than usually thought.

And the Illinois State University math professors behind the discovery say the work shows Lincoln was no slouch, either.

Math professors Nerida Ellerton and Ken Clements said Friday at the university in Normal that they recently confirmed that the two pages were part of a previously known math notebook from Lincoln's childhood. It was found in the archives of Houghton Library at Harvard University, where it remains.

The book, known as a cyphering book in Lincoln's day, is a workbook in which Lincoln wrote math problems and their answers. It's the oldest known Lincoln manuscript.

Based on the difficulty of the problems involved and dates on some of the pages — 1824 and, on the recently authenticated pages, 1826, when he was 17 — Lincoln likely worked in the book intermittently over several calendar years while his family lived in Indiana, the married professors said. They think he could have started as early as age 10 and believe his work happened while he was in school.

“Most people say he went to school for anything between three months and nine months” over the course of his life, Clements said. “We think he went to school (up to) two years.”

And very little of the work is wrong, he added.

“He made very few errors, and he always knew what he was trying to do,” Clements added. “We've studied thousands of these cyphering books. You don't always get the feeling that ‘this guy knew what he was doing.' ”

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