Larry DeBoer
Professor of
Agricultural Economics
Purdue University

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Indiana Pi

March 14 is Pi Day. That's because pi, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, starts with the digits 3.14159. So, March 14, at 1:59 p.m. (or a.m. if you're up) is the appropriate day and minute to celebrate pi.

We should pay special attention to Pi Day in Indiana, because Indiana has a special place in the history of pi. Back in 1897, Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin, a physician from Solitude in Posey County, thought he had solved some enduring mathematical mysteries. The good doctor had his solutions copyrighted in the United States and in seven countries in Europe. But he was a loyal Hoosier, so he decided to offer these new facts to the state of Indiana. While everyone else would have to pay, Indiana could use them in its textbooks royalty-free. If, that is, the General Assembly would put them in a bill and pass it.

So Rep. Taylor I. Record, the legislator from Dr. Goodwin's district, offered House Bill 246, "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."

The bill is a tough read. And no wonder, says Petr Beckmann, author of "A History of Pi." The text includes "hair-raising statements which not only contradict elementary geometry, but also appear to contradict each other." At the end of section 2, the bill states that the ratio of the diameter to the circumference of a circle is as five-fourths to four, which (if you figure it out) makes pi equal to 3.2. But only in Indiana.

The bill is pretty confident. The traditional value of pi, it says, "should be discarded as wholly wanting and misleading in its practical applications."

The bill was introduced on Jan. 18. Speaker of the House Henry Pettit laughed and had it assigned to the Committee on Swamp Land, also known as the Committee on Canals. But Rep. Record got it reassigned to the Committee on Education the next day. A new mathematical truth at no cost to the taxpayer must have seemed like a good deal. It passed out of committee, and on Feb. 5 the full House passed it, unanimously.

The newspapers noticed. The Indianapolis Journal called it "the strangest bill that has ever passed an Indiana Assembly." The Chicago Daily Tribune had a great time making fun of the Indiana Legislature. "The immediate effect of this change will be to give all circles when they enter Indiana either greater circumferences or less diameters," said the Tribune. "An Illinois circle or a circle originating in Ohio will find its proportions modified as soon as it lands on Indiana soil." Papers in New York, Boston and Washington picked up the story, too.

Professor Clarence Abiathar Waldo was surprised to hear mathematical legislation being debated by the General Assembly. He was the head of the Purdue mathematics department and was the university's lobbyist in the Statehouse. Usually, he lobbied for the university's appropriation (all of $18,500 in 1897). But after the bill passed the House, he lobbied for pi. He spent the evening of Feb. 5 making sure that the Senators were "properly coached" about the bill.

The Senate assigned it to the Committee on Temperance. Something was up. It passed and went to the Senate floor on Feb. 12. The senators then spent half an hour making fun of the bill. Sen. Orrin Z. Hubbell didn't think it was funny. He declared "the Senate might as well try to legislate water to run up hill as to establish mathematical truth by law." Plus, the Senate session was costing the public $250 a day, so time should not be wasted on frivolity. He moved the indefinite postponement of the bill. The motion carried, and it was never heard again.

So, on Pi Day we can celebrate the fact that Indiana did not adopt a law setting pi equal to 3.2, thanks in part to Purdue Professor Clarence A. Waldo. I'm a Purdue professor, too, and I'm proud that it was a long-ago colleague who offered his expertise to the state legislature on the issue of pi.

Where was Waldo? In 1897, just where he needed to be.



Writer: Larry DeBoer
Editor: Cindie Gosnell