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Moment of Indiana History

Squaring the Circle

Legislative antics in Indiana may have reached a comic peak in 1949, when one rural representative, claiming that Daylight Saving Time was disruptive for cows, reached up and forced the House clock back an hour, breaking it in the process. Tomfoolery was certainly not unprecedented at the Statehouse, however. In 1897, amateur mathematician and physician Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin of Posey County drafted a bill proposing the official adoption of a, quote, “new mathematical truth.” His miraculous revelation? The long-sought-after resolution of a highly irrational number: pi, or 3.14159…etcetera. That figure represents the ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter. Like many mathematical hobbyists before him, Goodwin had derived several formulas for “squaring the circle.”

Goodwin approached Posey County State Representative Taylor Record to introduce a bill to incorporate his copyrighted equations as fact. “Since the rule in present use fails to work,” the bill read, “it should be discarded as wholly wanting and misleading in the practical applications.” The bill would allow schools in the state to use Goodwin’s discovery free of charge, while other states would have to pay royalties for the privilege. The Indianapolis Sentinel reported that House Bill 246 was “not intended to be a hoax.”

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Swamp Lands, and subsequently, the Committee on Education, out of which it passed unanimously, even receiving the imprimatur of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Proceeding to consideration next by the Senate’s Committee on Temperance, the bill hit a wall after Purdue math professor Clarence A. Waldo convinced the senators that, “the Senate might as well try to legislate water to run up hill as to establish mathematical truth by law.” In Indiana, like everywhere else, pi remains an irrational number.

This program is a production of the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations in association with the Indiana Historical Society. More information is available on-line at “moment of Indiana history.org.”

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