I Discovered Quadratic Equations

Yes, this is a little known fact, but I discovered quadratic equations, back in the 1970s when I was in high school. Well, no, I was not the first person to discover them, but it happened like this…

My math teacher was a conscientious objector (the Vietnam War was going on) and his alternative service was to teach mathematics at our high school, which gives you some idea of the type of class we were, that his only worse option was to go to foreign country on the other side of the world and get shot at. One day, he walked into class, drew a picture of Mickey Mouse on the board, said:

“Figure out the equations to tell a computer how to draw this. I am going to the teachers’ lounge to have a cup of coffee.”

And he left.

Since we (like you) did not get credit for the course unless we actually finished the work, we were all pretty motivated to get the answer. Plus (don’t you dare laugh) none of us had ever actually gotten to touch a computer. You see, back then, computers were these hugely expensive things that took up an entire room. So, the idea that we could actually write instructions to one was kind of cool.


The picture, or something pretty close to it, is reproduced right here. I solved it using probably a lot more quadratic equations than I should have because my picture, or the one the computer printed, actually, did not come out looking so much like this, but it was recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Sam has already taken a shot at it and published a comment on The Julia Group forum. You can take a look at it, add to what she said, or just start on your own without anyone else’s opinion.

If you are interested, you can find information about quadratic equations mentioned in the Pirates of Penzance and their general history dating back to Egyptian papyrus at Wolfram’s math site.

I tried to find a podcast or video for this lesson but all I found were the same old boring-as-watching-paint-dry things with a person talking in a voice like the teacher from the old Charlie Brown videos and slow Powerpoint presentations with equations against a blue background. The use of color was the only thing that let me know it wasn’t done in the 1920’s. If you find a decent video or mp3 file, please let me know!

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One Comment

  1. Have you found a list of equations one could use to graph Mickey? If so, I’d love to see it!

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