My Old Kentucky Homesite

Great Moments in Stupidity #1

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/04/2010

Since my last post dealt with modern-day legislative idiocy in Kentucky, I feel it’s only fair to acknowledge that governmental  numskullery is limited neither to the present day nor to the Bluegrass State.  Tomorrow, February 5, is a significant date in the history of Representatives Gone Wild. Here’s why:

In 1896, through a set of bogus calculations, a Hoosier “mathematician” named Edwin J. Goodwin arrived at an “aha!” moment. Working in the appropriately named town of “Solitude,” he discovered how to square the circle, a problem that had been unsuccessfully attacked for millennia by far greater minds than his. But with the confidence only possible to a crank, Goodwin was sure that his results would be useful to real estate speculators, political wheeler-dealers, and various hustlers of all kinds. Of course, being a true get-up-and-go American, he  planned to sell his “invention” to everyone who would pay for it. But, first, he needed some official recognition.

So the “genius” copyrighted his work, and then made a money-making suggestion to his state representative. How about if Goodwin granted Indiana the right to use his formulas for free, in exchange for a share in the royalties that were sure to come ringing in from around the globe?

Thus it was that Democratic Representative Taylor Record submitted

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.

Apparently, none of the elected representatives realized that a mathematical “truth” could be protected neither by copyright nor patent – nor, for that matter, by any other governmental action.

On February 5, 1897, that bill was resoundingly passed in the Indiana House of Representatives by a vote of 67 – 0.  Although the document didn’t spell out its truth in so many words, it essentially established a new, improved value for one of the most important ratios in mathematics. From thenceforward, at least in the state of Indiana, pi would equal 3.2.

On the advice of a real mathematician from Purdue, however, several Indiana senators contrived to have the upper house’s vote on the bill postponed indefinitely. When the year was over (all 365 days of it – even in Fort Wayne, Kokomo, and Muncie), the bill was dead.

Still: Happy (Almost) Anniversary, Indiana Pi Bill! Please make mine coconut custard.


25 Responses to “Great Moments in Stupidity #1”

  1. srsny said

    So, drop the other shoe and tell us who finally DID discover the real ratio. a. Because I’m too lazy to wiki it myself, b. because I’m sure your explanation will be much more humorous, and c … oh, no, that’s the Pythagorean theorem – a whole other kind of square.

  2. Srsny:
    There’s no way for me to do a short post on the discovery of the value of pi because: (a) I don’t know enough about higher mathematics to understand some of the later work, (b) the subject is not funny, even when the Three Stooges toss it around, and (c) screw Pythagoras (a sentiment now referred to as “Archimedes’ Screw”).

    Speaking of Archimedes: Almost 300 years before the invention of Christ, he had calculated pi to be approximately 3.14185 — which is a lot closer than Goodwin came. Of course, the Indiana legislature would probably never have voted to accept the ideas of a foreigner.

  3. srsny said

    Maybe Goodwin should have taken more baths.

  4. Srsny:
    He might have, if his Italian friends had only told him: “You reek-a.”

  5. Kirk M said

    I tried squaring an apple pi once but filling ran out the edges. Then I tried squaring a pumpkin pi instead and while the insides stayed inside (perhaps it was overcooked?, when I presented the evidence to my contemporaries, my whole idea was quickly squashed.

  6. Kirk M said

    Please excuse the typos in my previous comment. I was still chuckling over your story.

  7. Kirk:
    I tried squaring a pumpkin pi … [but] my whole idea was quickly squashed.
    Well, you know what they always say: In Gourd We Trust.

    By the way: There are no penalites for tyops hear. So your excussed.

  8. yunshui said

    Well, the In God We Trust Crowd surely have an even more erroneous version of pi….

  9. Yunshui:
    I knew someone would bring up I Kings 7:23 (and also II Chronicles 4:2). But, even though I don’t believe in pi in the sky, the biblical figures have been explained by a number of religio-mathematicians.

    To put it simply: The bible measures a circular basin with a diameter of 10 cubits, and comes up with a circumference of 30 cubits. That seems to imply that pi = 3. (If you’ve forgotten your math, the circumference is the diameter x pi.) However, as far back as 150 C.E., the rabbi Nehemiah, in a textbook on geometry, corrected this “misinterpretation.” I’ll quote Jan Gulberg here from his book Mathematics — From the Birth of Numbers:

    Nehemiah tells us, if we may trust the sources, that the scriptural circumference is measured on the inside of the wall of the vessel whereas the “people of the world” measure their secular circumference on the outside.

    Using some mathematical sleight of hand, Nehemiah — and his many subsequent followers — determined that the difference between the two numbers was approximately the span of a hand, four inches or so. Amazingly, this gives us a pretty accurate result, namely that pi = 3.14159292 …, which is off by around one-millionth, give or take a few ten-millionths.

    In any case, the biblical passages in question were written more than 2,000 years before the Indiana bill. Whether or not the writers of Kings and Chronicles were idiots in their own time is debatable. But the Indiana legislators were indisputably morons in 1897.

  10. That, Sir, is Ridiculous.

    By Percy Bisque Silley
    Copyright 2010, Percy Bisque Silley
    All Rights Reserved
    US Patent Pending
    May Not Be Photocopied by Teachers for Educational Purposes

  11. the chaplain said

    I think you’re the only blogger I know who has a category or tag dedicated to “Idiots.”

  12. Percy:
    I regret to inform you that you may no longer use “That, Sir, is Ridiculous” ®☺ because (as you can see) I’ve already registered that phrase as a trademark — and I also own the happyright.

    I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.

  13. the chaplain said

    I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.

    If none of the posts stuck with this tag are autobiographical, you can be flattered.

  14. I suspect that, in order to have even considered this ‘pi-bill’, they representatives must have been rather ‘pie-eyed’ themselves.

    Or I could comment about the ‘pie-billed grebe’, but that would be, well, … Hmm. Not sure.

    Will this be a continuing series?

  15. (((Billy))):
    Will this be a continuing series?

    Now, what gave that away?

  16. I googled variations on “Old Kentucky Home” looking for your site. On seeing the URL, my first thought was that “myoldky” could refer to an unfortunately long dry spell. Dry on a couple of levels.

    Sorry for that imagery, by the way.

  17. Des:
    Thanks for Googling. I’m sorry to have to tell you that you’re not the first one to associate “myoldky” with a lubricant.

    In case you’re wondering, the first one was me — with a resigned sigh — about five minutes after I’d locked in my blog’s URL. At least I didn’t use the other address I thought of, which focused a little more on my being a brand new transplant to Kentucky: “nooky.”

  18. srsny said

    Ill bet that would have resulted in a big google response. Much more effective than putting Hannah Montana in boldface.

  19. Srsny:

    Hannah Montana? Isn’t she, like, sooooo the day before yesterday? What number does she think pi is?

  20. D’oh! Should have read the title in full. Sorry.

  21. (((Billy))):
    I must be doing something wrong here; you’re the third commenter to apologize.
    Do I seem unusually strict?

  22. Shit. I’m sorry. Won’t happen again. Sorry.

  23. the chaplain said

    Do I seem unusually strict?

    Maybe it’s that stern-looking Colonel face.

  24. Chappie: I see that face and I just want soggy fried chicken.

  25. (((Billy))):
    I just want soggy fried chicken.
    Would you care for some mashed potatoes and tepid gravy with that? If not, how about our famous glutinous corn on the cob?

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