Cover sheet courtesy of Levy Sheetmusic Collection.

Was Gauss Smart?

In my avocation as music director at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Hanson, Massachusetts, I often search for choral music both traditional and contemporary. The World Wide Web has turned out to be a terrific resource in this endeavor with many music publishers, composers, and music notation software companies providing links to sheet music or sound files.

Sitting at my desk at Bridgewater State College with a few hours to go before my first class of the new semester, I was surfing the web for material like this when I stumbled on the repository at Johns Hopkins University known as the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music.

Looking for Hymns or Sacred Music, I was disappointed not to find any such category. Instead I found links to boxes of sheet music whose contents were indicated by titles such as U.S. Presidents and Presidential Candidates; Patriotic Songs; Drinking, Temperance, and Smoking; Maritime; and so on. There was nothing among them that appealed to me. However, curious to see the contents of a typical box, I decided to choose a link from those visible on my screen. I arbitrarily chosethe third-listed Maritime box.

The thumbnail-size JPEG images of the cover pages of 150 pieces of sheet music began to fill the screen. As I started scrolling through them I was astounded to see a familiar image. Enlarging this image (Item 38 of Box 183) confirmed that the cover art was a lithograph of Carl Freidrich Gauss!This is the image with which everyone in the scientific and mathematical community is familiar and virtually the only image of him to be found in texts on the history of mathematics.

The music itself was titled Sailing Home by Charles Osborne, composer and lyricist. It told a tale of Britons who had struggled to make their fortune in the gold fields of Australia and were bound for home aboard a ship that, unfortunately, foundered at sea.

Unfortunately, the music has no date of publication, but we may deduce from the lyrics that Sailing Home was penned in the late 1850s or in the 1860s. For, according to the first stanza, the ship embarks from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and the gold strike in Victoria began in the 1850s. (Osborne was definitely composing around this time as can be seen from some of his other work including Bonnie Jean, dated 1858, also in the Levy Collection.)

Wilton Smart was the performer of the ballad. The bibliographical data on Sailing Home tells us that the engraved image on the cover page is "an unattributed lithograph of Wilton Smart," but we know it is Gauss. What can this mean? We are told that Gauss died in 1855. Maybe not.Perhaps he survived to enjoy another career, as a balladeer! Gauss was smart, but was he actually Smart in the 1860s? Is Gauss actually a time-traveller visiting us at different times under different guises? (Come to think of it, doesn't the comedian Robin Williams look a little too much like our Gauss?)

Leaving aside such fancy, we wonder how Gauss came to be the cover art for a piece of popular music. Was Osborne or his publisher, White-Smith of Boston, putting one over on the American public? Did the engraver lose the image of Smart and substitute that of another smart guy?

I also wonder what serendipidy led me, idly surfing for hymns, to choose to look only in the third box of Maritime-related music and to find Gauss, the Prince of Mathematics, looking back at me.


Over the sea like a bird she skimmed,
Back from the Land of Gold.
Pulses were beating, and eyes were
Thinking of friends of old.
Soon they would stand in their
Never again to roam;
But little they thought that their ship
so taut
Would founder while sailing home.

Math Horizons November 1999
Copyright the Mathematical Association of America 1999. All rights reserved.