The Harvard-United States Military Academy Mathematics Competition of 1933:Genesis of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition

Colonel David Arney and George Rosenstein:

The predecessor of the first national Putnam Competition was a mathematics contest between Harvard and the United States Military Academy. The details of this contest from William Lowell Putnam’s original idea for academic competition between schools in 1921 through the examination day in 1933 and later consequences of the competition are provided. Much of this history was compiled from original letters between the principle organizers found in a historical file of the Department of Mathematics, United States Military Academy (USMA). The role of the Mathematical Association of America, which has been involved in all 50 national Putnam Competitions, in this 1933 contest is also explained. A copy of the 22 question examination is provided.


In an article in the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine [1] in December, 1921, William Lowell Putnam suggested the development of academic competitions between teams of undergraduate students of different schools in regular college studies. He believed that the motive of winning laurels for their college in team competition would provide students more interest in their studies. He concluded the article with: “It seems probable that the competition which has inspired young men to undertake and undergo so much for the sake of athletic victories might accomplish some result in academic fields.” The merits of his suggestion were shared by Mrs. Putnam and her brother, A. Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard. Mrs. Putnam established a trust fund in her will to support such competition [1].

The first experiment of such academic competition supported by the Putnams was held in 1928 in the subject of English between Harvard and Yale. The winner, Harvard, won a prize of $5000. While Harvard and the Putnams wanted to repeat this contest, potential adversaries, Yale and Princeton, declined to compete in another English examination, as did Cambridge University in Economics.