Cambridge Mathematical Tripos

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Results for parts II and III of the Mathematical Tripos are read out inside the Senate House, University of Cambridge, and then tossed from the balcony.

The Mathematical Tripos is the taught mathematics course in the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. It is the oldest Tripos examined in Cambridge University.


In its classical nineteenth-century form, the tripos was a distinctive written examination of undergraduate students of the University of Cambridge. Prior to 1824, the Mathematical Tripos was formally known as the "Senate House Examination".[1] From about 1780 to 1909, the "Old Tripos" was distinguished by a number of features, including the publication of an order of merit of successful candidates, and the difficulty of the mathematical problems set for solution. By way of example, in 1854, the Tripos consisted of 16 papers spread over 8 days, totaling 44.5 hours. The total number of questions was 211.[2] The actual marks for the exams were never published, but there is reference to an exam in the 1860s where, out of a total possible mark of 17,000, the senior wrangler achieved 7634, the second wrangler 4123, the lowest wrangler around 1500 and the lowest scoring candidate obtaining honours (the wooden spoon) 237; about 100 candidates were awarded honours and the 300-odd below that level were known as poll men[clarification needed].[3] The questions for the 1841 examination may be found within the Cambridge University Magazine (pages 191-208).[4]


According to the study Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics by Andrew Warwick[5] during this period the style of teaching and study required for the successful preparation of students had a wide influence:

Since Cambridge students did a lot of rote learning called "bookwork", it was noted by Augustus De Morgan and repeated by Andrew Warwick[6] that authors of Cambridge textbooks skipped known material. In consequence, "non-Cambridge readers ... found the arguments impossible to follow."

Early history[edit]

The early history is of the gradual replacement during the middle of the eighteenth century of a traditional method of oral examination by written papers, with a simultaneous switch in emphasis from Latin disputation to mathematical questions. That is, all degree candidates were expected to show at least competence in mathematics. A long process of development of coaching – tuition usually outside the official University and college courses – went hand-in-hand with a gradual increase in the difficulty of the most testing questions asked. The standard examination pattern of bookwork (mostly memorised theorems) plus rider (problems to solve, testing comprehension of the bookwork) was introduced.

Wranglers and their coaches[edit]

The list of wranglers (the candidates awarded a first-class degree) became in time the subject of a great deal of public attention. According to Alexander Macfarlane[7]

To obtain high honours in the Mathematical Tripos, a student must put himself in special training under a mathematician, technically called a coach, who is not one of the regular college instructors, nor one of the University professors, but simply makes a private business of training men to pass that particular examination. Skill consists in the rate at which one can solve and more especially write out the solution of problems. It is excellent training of a kind, but there is not time for studying fundamental principles, still less for making any philosophical investigations. Mathematical insight is something higher than skill in solving problems; consequently the senior wrangler has not always turned out the most distinguished mathematician in after life.

William Hopkins was the first coach distinguished by his students' performances. When he retired in 1849, one of his students, Edward Routh became the dominant coach. Another coach, William Henry Besant published a textbook, Elementary Hydrostatics, containing mathematical exercises and solutions such as would benefit students preparing for Tripos. After Routh retired in 1888, Robert Rumsey Webb coached many of the top wranglers. Warwick notes that college teaching improved toward the end of the 19th century:

The expansion of intercollegiate and university lectures at all levels through the 1880s and 1890s meant that, by 1900, it had become unnecessary for coaches either to lecture students or even to provide them with manuscripts covering the mathematical methods they were required to master. The prime job to the coach now was to ensure that students were attending an appropriate range of courses and that they understood what they were being taught. … This curtailment of responsibility made it virtually impossible for a private tutor to dominate undergraduate training the way that Hopkins, Routh, and Webb had done.[8]

A fellow of Trinity College, Robert Alfred Herman then was associated with several of the top wranglers as their coach; evidently the University was finally providing their students with education.

When A. R. Forsyth wrote his retrospective in 1935, he recalled Webb, Percival Frost, Herman, and Besant as the best coaches. Other coaches that produced top wranglers include E. W. Hobson, John Hilton Grace, H. F. Baker, Thomas John I'Anson Bromwich, and A. E. H. Love.

1909 Tripos reforms[edit]

Reforms were implemented in 1909. The undergraduate course of mathematics at Cambridge still reflects a historically-broad approach; and problem-solving skills are tested in examinations, though the setting of excessively taxing questions has been discouraged for many years.

Today's Mathematical Tripos[edit]

Today, the Mathematical Tripos course comprises three undergraduate years (Parts IA, IB and II) which qualify a student for a BA degree, and an optional one year graduate course (Part III) which qualifies a student for an MMath (with BA) if they are a Cambridge fourth year student or a MASt (Master of Advanced Studies) degree if they come from outside just to do Part III. Assessment is mostly by written examination at the end of each academic year, with some coursework elements in the second, third and fourth years.[9]

During the undergraduate part of the course, students are expected to attend around 12 one-hour lectures per week on average, together with two supervisions. Supervisions are informal sessions in which a small group of students - normally a pair - goes through previously completed example sheets under the guidance of a faculty member, college fellow or graduate student.

During the first year, Part IA, the schedule of courses is quite rigid, providing much of the basic knowledge requisite for mathematics, including algebra, analysis, methods in calculus, and probability. The second year, Part IB, contains some further important mandatory content, but in addition there are a number of pure and applied courses that students may choose from according to their preferences.[10] In Part II, students are free to choose from a large number of courses over a wide range of mathematical topics. Until recently, some students took options within the Tripos that allowed them to give up some Mathematics courses in exchange for courses in Physics or Computer Science, with the possibility of changing to those subjects at the end of the first year - however, the Computer Science option was discontinued from the 2008-2009 academic year.


  1. ^ Gascoigne, J. (1984). "Mathematics and Meritocracy: The Emergence of the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos". Social Studies of Science 14 (4): 547–510. doi:10.1177/030631284014004003.  edit
  2. ^ Forfar, D.O. (1996). "What became of the Senior Wranglers?". Mathematical Spectrum 29 (1). Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  3. ^ Galton, Francis (1869). Hereditary Genius-An Enquiry into its Laws and Consequences. p. 17. 
  4. ^ University of Cambridge (1843). The Cambridge University Magazine (PDF) 2. Cambridge: W. Metcalfe. pp. 191–208. Retrieved 2008-10-01. 
  5. ^ Warwick, Andrew (2003). Masters of theory: Cambridge and the rise of mathematical physics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-87375-7. 
  6. ^ Warwick 2003 p 152
  7. ^ Macfarlane, Alexander (1916). Lectures on Ten British Mathematicians of the Nineteenth Century. New York: John Wiley and Sons. p. 79. 
  8. ^ Warwick 2003 p 282
  9. ^ University of Cambridge Courses Guide : Mathematics
  10. ^ University of Cambridge Mathematics Course Outline

Further reading[edit]

  • Rouse Ball, A History of the Study of Mathematics at Cambridge
  • Leonard Roth (1971) "Old Cambridge Days", American Mathematical Monthly 78:223–236.

The Tripos was an important institution in nineteenth century England and many notable figures were involved with it. It has attracted broad attention from scholars. See for example:

  • Griffin, N.; Lewis, A. C. (1990). "Bertrand Russell's Mathematical Education". Notes and Records of the Royal Society 44: 51. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1990.0004.  edit
  • Stray, C. (2001). "The Shift from Oral to Written Examination: Cambridge and Oxford 1700–1900". Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 8: 33–24. doi:10.1080/09695940120033243.  edit

In old age two undergraduates of the 1870s wrote sharply contrasting accounts of the Old Tripos — one negative, one positive. Andrew Forsyth, Senior Wrangler 1881, stayed in Cambridge and was one of the reformers responsible for the New Tripos. Karl Pearson Third Wrangler in 1879 made his career outside Cambridge.

J. J. Thomson, a Second Wrangler in 1880, wrote about his experience in:

  • J. J. Thomson Recollections and Reflections London: G. Bell, 1936.

J. E. Littlewood, a Senior Wrangler in the last years of the old Tripos, recalled the experience in:

On the importance of the Tripos in the history of mathematics in Britain: search on "tripos" in

For statistics on the number of graduates (men and women) between 1882 and 1940 see:

For the present-day Tripos see: