Indiana Pi Bill


The Indiana Pi Bill is the popular name for bill #246 of the 1897 sitting of the Indiana General Assembly, one of the most famous attempts to establish scientific truth by legislative fiat. Despite that name, the main result claimed by the bill is a method to square the circle, rather than to establish a certain value for the mathematical constant π (pi), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. However, the bill does contain text that appears to dictate various incorrect values of π, such as 3.2.

The bill never became law, due to the intervention of a mathematics professor who happened to be present in the legislature. The impossibility of squaring the circle using only compass and straightedge, suspected since ancient times, was rigorously proved in 1882 by Ferdinand von Lindemann. Better approximations of π than those inferred from the bill have been known since ancient times.

In 1894, Indiana physician and amateur mathematician Edwin J. Goodwin believed that he had discovered a correct way of squaring the circle. He proposed a bill to Indiana Representative Taylor I. Record, which was introduced in the House under the long title ‘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.’

Upon its introduction in the Indiana House of Representatives, the bill’s language and topic occasioned confusion among the membership; a member from Bloomington proposed that it be referred to the Finance Committee, but the Speaker accepted another member’s recommendation to refer the bill to the Committee on Swamplands, where the bill could ‘find a deserved grave.’ It was transferred to the Committee on Education, which reported favorably; following a motion to suspend the rules, the bill passed on February 6 without a dissenting vote.

The news of the bill occasioned an alarmed response from ‘Der Tägliche Telegraph,’ a German-language newspaper in Indianapolis, which viewed the event with significantly less favor than its English-speaking competitors. As this debate concluded, Purdue University Professor C. A. Waldo arrived in Indianapolis to secure the annual appropriation for the Indiana Academy of Sciences. An assemblyman handed him the bill, offering to introduce him to the genius who wrote it. He declined, saying that he already met as many crazy people as he cared to.

When it reached the Indiana Senate, the bill was not treated so kindly as Waldo had coached the senators previously. The Senate tabled it on February 12; it was nearly passed, but opinion changed when one senator observed that the General Assembly lacked the power to define mathematical truth. Influencing some of the senators was a report that major newspapers, such as the ‘Chicago Tribune,’ had begun to ridicule the situation.


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