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History of UniversitiesVolume XXVI/1$
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Mordechai Feingold

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199652068

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199652068.001.0001

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The Wooden Spoon

The Wooden Spoon

Rank (dis)order in Cambridge 1753–1909

(p.163) The Wooden Spoon
History of Universities

Christopher Stray

Oxford University Press

This chapter examines the history of the Wooden Spoon, an award bestowed upon students who achieved the lowest exam marks but were not failed outright in the Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cambridge developed a system of graded numerical ranking in mathematics, resulting in three classes of successful candidates in the honours examination (the Senate House Examination, later known as the Mathematical Tripos): Wranglers, Senior Optimes, and Junior Optimes. At the bottom of the honours list, however, another title had to be created to distinguish the lowest scorer from his unclassed inferiors. This turned out to be the Wooden Spoon, awarded to anyone who is in a kind of limbo between the Wranglers and Optimes. Before explaining the development, varieties and institutional significance of the Wooden Spoon, this chapter provides a background on the phrase ‘the wooden spoon’ as used all over the English-speaking world. It then turns to the history and taxonomy of spoons before analysing the origin of the Wooden Spoon at Cambridge, as well as significant developments in 1882 concerning the award. The chapter concludes by looking at the awarding of the last spoon in 1909 to a member of St John's College.

Keywords:   history, Wooden Spoon, Mathematical Tripos, University of Cambridge, mathematics, honours examination, Wranglers, Senior Optimes, Junior Optimes, St John's College

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