Carl Friedrich Gauss

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) is considered to be the greatest German mathematician of the nineteenth century. His discoveries and writings influenced and left a lasting mark in the areas of number theory, astronomy, geodesy, and physics, particularly the study of electromagnetism.

Gauss was born in Brunswick, Germany, on April 30, 1777, to poor, working-class parents. His father labored as a gardner and brick-layer and was regarded as an upright, honest man. However, he was a harsh parent who discouraged his young son from attending school, with expectations that he would follow one of the family trades. Luckily, Gauss' mother and uncle, Friedrich, recognized Carl's genius early on and knew that he must develop this gifted intelligence with education.

While in arithmetic class, at the age of ten, Gauss exhibited his skills as a math prodigy when the stern schoolmaster gave the following assignment: "Write down all the whole numbers from 1 to 100 and add up their sum." When each student finished, he was to bring his slate forward and place it on the schoolmaster's desk, one on top of the other. The teacher expected the beginner's class to take a good while to finish this exercise. But in a few seconds, to his teacher's surprise, Carl proceeded to the front of the room and placed his slate on the desk. Much later the other students handed in their slates.

At the end of the classtime, the results were examined, with most of them wrong. But when the schoolmaster looked at Carl's slate, he was astounded to see only one number: 5,050. Carl then had to explain to his teacher that he found the result because he could see that, 1+100=101, 2+99=101, 3+98=101, so that he could find 50 pairs of numbers that each add up to 101. Thus, 50 times 101 will equal 5,050.

At the age of fourteen, Gauss was able to continue his education with the help of Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick. After meeting Gauss, the Duke was so impressed by the gifted student with the photographic memory that he pledged his financial support to help him continue his studies at Caroline College. At the end of his college years, Gauss made a tremendous discovery that, up to this time, mathematicians had believed was impossible. He found that a regular polygon with 17 sides could be drawn using just a compass and straight edge. Gauss was so happy about and proud of his discovery that he gave up his intention to study languages and turned to mathematics.

Duke Ferdinand continued to financially support his young friend as Gauss pursued his studies at the University of Gottingen. While there he submitted a proof that every algebraic equation has at least one root or solution. This theorem had challenged mathematicians for centuries and is called "the fundamental theorem of algebra".

Gauss' next discovery was in a totally different area of mathematics. In 1801, astronomers had discovered what they thought was a planet, which they named Ceres. They eventually lost sight of Ceres but their observations were communicated to Gauss. He then calculated its exact position, so that it was easily rediscovered. He also worked on a new method for determining the orbits of new asteroids. Eventually these discoveries led to Gauss' appointment as professor of mathematics and director of the observatory at Gottingen, where he remained in his official position until his death on February 23, 1855.

Carl Friedrich Gauss, though he devoted his life to mathematics, kept his ideas, problems, and solutions in private diaries. He refused to publish theories that were not finished and perfect. Still, he is considered, along with Archimedes and Newton, to be one of the three greatest mathematicians who ever lived.

Contributed by Karolee Weller


  1. Ball, W.W. Rouse. (1960). A Short Account of the History of Mathematics. New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc.
  2. Bell, Eric T. (1937). Men of Mathematics. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
  3. "Gauss, Carl Friedrich," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnalls Corporation.
  4. Hall, Tord. (1970). Carl Friedrich Gauss. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  5. Reimer, Luetta. (1990). Mathematicians Are People, Too. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications.

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