Some Disputes of Consequence: Maclaurin among the Molasses Barrels

Document Type



Mathematics (Pitzer)

Publication Date



Colin Maclaurin, History, Social disputes


In 1735 the great Scottish mathematician Colin Maclaurin wrote a 94-page memoir to the Scottish Excise Commission, explaining how to find the precise amount of molasses in barrels at Glasgow. We describe the work itself, and place it in its social context by discussing the place of molasses in world trade, the increasing rationalization of tax collection and economic organization, the growth of public science, and the role of all these in the rise of the 18th-century nation-state in general, and of Scotland in particular. The paper is a case study illustrating the creation and use of mathematics to resolve socially divisive disputes by replacing arbitrary local practices with impersonally justifiable rules, and illuminating also the way the perceived prestige and objectivity of mathematics - and of eminent mathematicians - are used by political authority to quell unrest and achieve consensus.

Rights Information

© 1998 SSS and SAGE Publications