Indiana Pi  

Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin, M.D., a physician in the community of Solitude, Posey County, Indiana, was one of a long line of mathematical hobbyists to try to square the circle.  Dr. Goodwin thought he had succeeded, and, apparently a loyal Hoosier, decided that the State of Indiana should be the first beneficiary of this "new mathematical truth."

In 1897, Dr. Goodwin wrote a bill incorporating his new ideas, and persuaded his State Representative to introduce it.  Taylor I. Record was the Representative from Posey County to the Indiana General Assembly.  Representative Record was a farmer, timber and lumber merchant.  The session of 1897 was in his first and only term in the legislature.  During the debate on the bill, he was quoted as saying he knew nothing of it, but introduced it at the request of Dr. Goodwin.1 Representative Record submitted the bill, House Bill 246, on January 18, 1897.  

Dr. Goodwin had copyrighted his solution to squaring the circle, and his idea was to allow Indiana to use these new facts in its schools free of charge.  People in the rest of the country and the world would have to pay him a royalty.  The preamble of the bill outlined this generous offer:

A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897. 

The bill itself is crammed top to bottom with 19th century mathematical jargon.  It seems likely that few members of the General Assembly understood it (many said so during the debate).  They were right not to understand.  Petr Beckmann, in his History of Pi, wrote that the bill contained "hair-raising statements which not only contradict elementary geometry, but also appear to contradict each other" (p. 175).  Click here for the full text of the HB 246, 1897. 

Even for the mathematical novice, though, one statement stands out.  Towards the end of the second of three sections of the bill, it says "the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four."  Pi is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of the circle, and the ratio 4 to 5/4 is 3.2.  A nice, round, wrong number.

The House Bill 246 was referred to the House Committee on Canals, also known as the Committee on Swamp Lands.  Perhaps the leadership thought the bill had something to do with surveying.  Representative M. B. Butler, chairman of the Canals Committee, recommended that it be referred to the Committee on Education, and this was done on January 19.

The newspapers followed the debate.  The Indianapolis Sentinel, on January 20, reported that the bill was "not intended to be a hoax."  The article also reported that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Geeting believed that Goodwin had found the solution to the problem of squaring the circle.  

The House Education Committee, chaired by Representative S. E. Nicholson, reported the bill out of committee "with the recommendation that said bill do pass."  It was taken up by the full House on February 5, and passed unanimously, 67 to 0.

Most of the local newspapers merely reported this action, but the Indianapolis Journal wrote the next day that "this is the strangest bill that has ever passed an Indiana Assembly."

 Now in steps our hero.  On February 5, the head of the Purdue University Mathematics Department, Professor Clarence Abiathar Waldo, was in the Statehouse lobbying for the University's budget appropriation.  Professor Waldo had been an instructor of mathematics (and Latin) at several seminaries, institutes and colleges in the Midwest for more than 20 years.  He had also been in administration, as a Registrar and Vice President at other institutions, which may explain why he had been given the task of keeping track of the University's appropriation.  He was the author of a book titled Manual of Descriptive Geometry.2

He was astonished to find the General Assembly debating mathematical legislation.  Naturally, he listened in.  Naturally, he was horrified.  He heard a Representative speak for the bill:

The case is perfectly simple.  If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value of pi, the author offers our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free publication in our school textbooks, while everyone else must pay him a royalty.3

After the debate, a Representative offered to introduce him to Dr. Goodwin.  Professor Waldo replied that he was already acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know.  

That evening, Professor Waldo "coached" (as he put it) the Senators about the bill.  Still, on February 11 the bill was introduced in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Temperance.  With a speed we can only admire, the committee reported the bill favorably the next day, and sent it to the Senate floor for debate.4 

This time its reception was different.  According to the Indianapolis News report of February 13, quoted by Edington (p. 209), 

...the bill was brought up and made fun of.  The Senators made bad puns about it, ridiculed it and laughed over it.  The fun lasted half an hour.  Senator Hubbell said that it was not meet for the Senate, which was costing the State $250 a day, to waste its time in such frivolity.  He said that in reading the leading newspapers of Chicago and the East, he found that the Indiana State Legislature had laid itself open to ridicule by the action already taken on the bill.  He thought consideration of such a propostion was not dignified or worthy of the Senate.  He moved the indefinite postponement of the bill, and the motion carried.  

The Indianapolis Journal had Senator Hubbell saying that "the Senate might as well try to legislate water to run up hill as to establish mathematical truth by law."  The Journal noted that 

...no one who spoke against it intimated that there was anything wrong with the theories it advances.  All of the senators who spoke on the bill admitted that they were ignorant of the merits of the proposition.  It was simply regarded as not being a subject for legislation (Edington, p. 210).

Senator Hubbell moved to postpone further consideration of the bill indefinitely, and the motion passed.  According to Beckmann, the bill "has not been on the agenda since" (p. 177).  The official history of the Indiana General Assembly (p. 429) gives the credit to Professor Waldo

Thanks mainly to this alert professor, who convinced the Senate not to tamper with "unsolvable mysteries . . . above man's abilities to comprehend," the Indiana General Assembly failed to do in 1897 what no one before or since has done, i.e. square the circle.

 

 

Sources

Beckman, Petr.  A History of Pi.  Boulder, Colorado:  The Golem Press, 1982 (5th edition).

Debris (Purdue University Yearbook), 1897.

Debris (Purdue University Yearbook), 1899.

Edington, Will E.  "House Bill No. 246, Indiana State Legislature, 1897," Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 45 (1935):  206-210.

Shephard, Rebecca A., Charles W. Calhoun, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Alan F. January.  A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, vol. 1, 1816-1899. Indianapolis, Indiana:  Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980.

Walsh, Justin E.  The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978.  Indianapolis, Indiana:  Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987.

 

 

Notes

1.  Here's Representative Record's entry in the Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly (p. 323):

RECORD (RECORDS), Taylor I.  HOUSE, 1897 (POSEY).  Born October 12, 1846, Greene County, Indiana.  Attended common schools.  Married Sallie A. Cox, 1867 (4 children) - died 1882; married Mary Yeager, 1883 (1 child).  Farmer; timber and lumber merchant.  Democrat.  Died November 20, 1912, Lynn Township, Posey County, Indiana. 
Back to the text.

 

2.  Here's Professor Waldo's entry in the 1897 Debris, the Purdue yearbook (p. 20): 

CLARENCE ABIATHAR WALDO, A.M., Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics.

Graduate Wesleyan University 1875, A.B.; 1878, A.M.; Professor of Mathematics and Natural Science at Drew Female Seminary, 1875-76;  Professor Latin and Mathematics at Hackettstown Collegiate Institute, 1876-77;  Instructor in Mathematics and Registrar at Wesleyan University, 1877-81;  Professor Mathematics and Vice President Hackettstown Collegiate Institute, 1882-83; studied in Universities of Leipsic and Munich, 1882-83;  Professor Mathematics Rose Polytechnic Institute, 1883-91; Professor Mathematics De Pauw University, 1891-95;  President Indiana College Association, 1891;  Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science; Ph.D., 1894;  Author of "Manual of Descriptive Geometry." 
Click here for a full sized photo of Professor Waldo, from the 1899 Purdue yearbook, Debris.
Back to the text.

 

3.  Here's Professor Waldo's account of what happened, quoted in Edington (p. 210):

    As the session of the Legislature was drawing toward its close it chanced to be the duty of the writer to visit the State Capitol and make sure that the Academy appropriation was cared for.  When admitted to the floor of the House, imagine his surprize when he discovered that he was in the midst of a debate upon a piece of mathematical legislation.  An ex-teacher from the eastern part of the state was saying: "The case is perfectly simple.  If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value of pi, the author offers our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free publication in our school textbooks, while everyone else must pay him a royalty."  The roll was then called and the bill passed its third and final reading in the lower house.  A member then showed the writer a copy of the bill just passed and asked him if he would like an introduction to the learned doctor, its author.  He declined the courtesy with thanks remarking that he was acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know.
    That evening the senators were properly coached and shortly thereafter as it came to its final reading in the upper house they threw out with much merriment the epoch making discovery of the Wise Man from the Pocket.

Edington notes that Waldo was writing 20 years after the event (the account was published in 1917), and apparently did not check his facts.  Waldo put the year down as 1899 (causing Edington much wasted effort in the records of the 1899 legislature).  Waldo was apparently present for the House debate, on February 5, and remembers having "coached" the senators that evening.  Yet the bill passed the Temperance Committee six days later.  Were these senators still uncoached, or did they pass it so it could be ridiculed on the floor of the Senate? 
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4.  They must have been drunk.  Edington (p. 209) speculates that this may have been "done intentionally, for certainly the bill could have been referred to no committee more appropriately named."  Waldo says he coached the Senate the week before.  Either he had not coached those on the committee (who were then probably unpleasantly surprised by its reception in the full Senate), or the Senators on the committee were just having some fun, or Professor Waldo remembered incorrectly, and he did his coaching on February 12, after the bill passed the Senate Temperance Committee but before the Senate debate. 
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