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'It would have been a laughingstock': Hoosier lawmakers nearly passed the Indiana Pi Bill in 1897

Bill would have legislated the laws of mathematics
What you need to know about Pi Day
Posted at 2:55 PM, Mar 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-14 19:49:25-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The story of how Indiana's General Assembly attempted to legislate the laws of mathematics begins with Dr. Edward J. Goodwin, a rural Indiana physician and amateur mathematician, who traveled to Indianapolis in 1897 with a plan to change the world.

Pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, is the irrational number celebrated each year on March 14. However, the confused lawmakers who listened to Goodwin nearly turned Indiana into a source of mockery for all time.

"This guy, Edward Goodwin, thought he had solved three big problems that had been well-known to mathematicians for a long time," Pomona College math professor Edray Goins said.

Those problems problems included setting the angle, doubling the square and squaring the circle. To help Goodwin achieve his theory for squaring the circle, he rounded pi up from 3.1415926535(etc.) to 3.2.

Goodwin's determination to make the world aware of his theories previously led him to travel from his home in Solitude, Indiana, an unincorporated town south of New Harmony in Posey County, to the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Unfortunately for Goodwin, organizers revoked his permit after they read his work, according to "House Bill No. 246 Revisited," a 1966 paper written by Valparaiso University math professor Arthur E. Hallerburg.

Worlds Fair Legacies
FILE- This 1893 file photo shows two women pushed in carts during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. World's fairs and expositions have introduced technological innovations and marked cultural shifts for the masses since the first one was held in 1851 London in a glistening Crystal Palace. (AP Photo/FILE)

Undeterred, Goodwin took his idea four years later to the Indiana Statehouse where he met his representative, Taylor I. Record, and offered to give the state his solution so it could be used in the state's textbooks for free with other states paying a royalty for its use.

In response, on Jan. 18, Record introduced House Bill 246 — commonly known as the Indiana Pi Bill — which was, "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 royalties on the same."

Record admitted he did not understand the language in the bill, "as I have had only a common school education," but he trusted Goodwin knew what he was talking about, according to a 1961 Indianapolis Star story.

Other lawmakers were similarly confused. After the House clerk read the bill's title, Speaker Henry C. Pettit, who either had a sense of humor or no idea what he heard, assigned it to the Committee on Canals, Swamplands and Drains.

However, the committee's chairman, Rep. Samuel Edgar Nicholson, recommended the bill be forwarded to the Committee on Education and "the chamber concurred," according to the "Journal of Proceedings of the House, 1897," which Hallerburg cited.

On Feb. 2, the education committee recommended the bill for passage. A second reading was made Feb. 5, and Nicholson asked that the two-page bill be brought for a vote.

"The mish-mash of circumlocution in a jargon strange to most of our common school-educated legislators must have been hypnotically overwhelming," the Star wrote in 1961.

The House unanimously passed the bill, 67-0.

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The Rock Island Argus mocked Indiana Rep. Taylor I. Record with a cartoon in a story about odd bills from around the country in its March 6, 1897 edition.

Laughing at Indiana

Goins, who taught a lesson on the Indiana Pi Bill during his time as a professor at Purdue University, said even he cannot make sense of the language in the bill, which primarily consisted of Goodwin's own words and ideas.

"They couldn't make heads or tails of what was being said," Goins said. "But I think once they thought of this concept of the state can actually have income from all of this being part of a textbook, that's the main thing they cared about. It got to be very complicated, unfortunately."

Word of the House's passage of House Bill 246 soon traveled outside Indiana's state lines.

The Chicago Tribune mercilessly mocked its neighbor state in a Feb. 7, 1897, editorial titled, "Indiana's Finger in the Pi."

"The immediate effect of this change will be to give all circles when they enter Indiana either greater circumferences or less diameters," the Tribune wrote. "An Illinois circle or a circle originating in Ohio will find its proportions modified as soon as it lands on Indiana soil. It will find itself under the sway of a modified Pi.

"But this revolutionizing effect on circles will be a small circumstance compared to the healthy moral tone that will be restored to the young people of Indiana who have been suffering from Pi blight. A Pi that is so simple as 3.2 ought to be free from any entangling features, but if perchance it still proves obdurate no doubt the Legislature will promptly lop off another decimal and call it 3."

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The Chicago Tribune criticized the Indiana Pi Bill in an editorial on Feb. 7, 1897.

Meanwhile, the New York Herald wrote on Feb. 13 that the bill, if signed into law, would make "the area of the Indiana circle somewhat smaller than that of the falsely pretentious circles of the rest of the world." (The reporter was mistaken in that an increased value of pi would make Indiana circles larger, not smaller, proving that math is not a strong suit of journalists.)

"Let us hope it does not similarly affect the volume of spheres, lest the real capacity of an almost spherical cranium may be much less than its apparent capacity," the Herald wrote. "How seriously that would affect the head of Dr. Goodwin, which seems, by reason of its size, to be in irrepressible conflict with the confines of the universe."

Goodwin, however, was defiant in the face of ridicule.

"If I live ten years, and I hope I shall, you watch out for Goodwin. My discovery will revolutionize mathematics. The astronomers have all been wrong. There's about 40,000 square miles on the surface of this earth that isn't here. Watch out for Goodwin if you live ten years," he told the Indianapolis Sun, according to Hallerburg's paper.

The bill moves to the Senate

House Bill 246 reached the Senate on Feb. 11, according to the Star's 1961 retrospective, but that doesn't mean it made any more sense to the state's upper chamber. Mortimer H. Nye, president pro tempore of the Senate, read the bill's title and sent it to the Committee on Temperance.

However, the next day, Sen. Harry S. New recommended the bill for passage and Sen. Virgil P. Bozeman, a member of the temperance committee, called the bill for a second reading.

Fortunately for Indiana's reputation, Purdue math professor Clarence A. Waldo happened to be at the Statehouse while debate unfolded in the Senate. Goins said Waldo spoke with senators and explained the bill's language was incorrect mathematically.

"It completely fell apart," Goins said. "So that's where Waldo really made a key play. He was the one who coaxed the senators to let them know that this doesn't make any sense."

So, with that, the Indiana Senate abandoned the bill and tabled it indefinitely.

"I think the main thing is that it would have been a laughingstock," Goins said.

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The Indiana Statehouse in Downtown Indianapolis

In a reflection written 20 years later, Waldo said a member of the Senate asked if he would like to meet Goodwin to discuss the bill.

"He declined the courtesy with thanks remarking that he was acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know," Waldo wrote in the third-person.

Goodwin returned in defeat to Solitude, where he died five years later on June 23, 1902. An obituary published in the New Harmony Times, and cited in Hallerburg's paper, noted Goodwin's sadness that came with the realization that only he appreciated the ideas he thought would change the world.

"As years went on and he saw the child of his genius still unreceived by the scientific world, he came broken with disappointment," the Times wrote, "although he never lost hope and trusted that before his end he would see the world awakened to the greatness of his plan and taste for a moment the sweetness of success."