In Science magazine a while back an article about the latest attempts to calculate pi to the umpteen zillionth decimal place made a passing reference to a curious Oklahoma law. It said Oklahoma legislators had passed a law making pi equal to 3.0. I also remember Robert Heinlein in one of his novels mentioning that Tennessee had passed a similar law. Did either of these states ever pass such a law? Are they still on the books? What are the penalties if I proclaim that pi equals 3.14159 . . . ? –Wulf Losee, Andover, Connecticut

Cecil has heard this story too, only the state in question was Kansas, leading him to believe the whole thing was made up by big-city sharpies having a little fun at the expense of the rustics. However, with the help of Joseph Madachy, editor of the Journal of Recreational Mathematics, I’ve learned the story does have a germ of truth to it.

It happened in Indiana. Although the attempt to legislate pi was ultimately unsuccessful, it did come pretty close. In 1897 Representative T.I. Record of Posen County introduced House Bill #246 in the Indiana House of Representatives. The bill, based on the work of a physician and amateur mathematician named Edwin J. Goodwin, suggests not one but three numbers for pi, among them 3.2. The punishment for unbelievers I have not been able to learn, but I place no credence in the rumor that you had to spend the rest of your natural life in Indiana.

Just as people today have a hard time accepting the idea that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe, Goodwin and Record apparently couldn’t handle the fact that pi was not a rational number. “Since the rule in present use [presumably pi equals 3.14159 . . . ] fails to work . . . , it should be discarded as wholly wanting and misleading in the practical applications,” the bill declared. Instead, mathematically inclined Hoosiers could take their pick among the following formulae:

(1) The ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is 5/4 to 4. In other words, pi equals 16/5 or 3.2.

(2) The area of a circle equals the area of a square whose side is 1/4 the circumference of the circle. Working this out algebraically, we see that pi must be equal to 4.

(3) The ratio of the length of a 90-degree arc to the length of a segment connecting the arc’s two endpoints is 8 to 7. This gives us pi equal to the square root of 2 X 16/7, or about 3.23.

God only knows how having three different numbers for pi was supposed to clarify anything, but as we shall see, they do things a little differently in Indiana. Bill #246 was initially sent to the Committee on Swamp Lands. The committee deliberated gravely on the question, decided it was not the appropriate body to consider such a measure, and turned it over to the Committee on Education. The latter committee gave the bill a “pass” recommendation and sent it on to the full house, which approved it unanimously, 67 to 0.

In the state senate, the bill was referred to the Committee on Temperance. (One begins to suspect it was silly season in the Indiana legislature.) It passed first reading, but for reasons that are not entirely clear that’s as far as it got. In one telling (from The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers), the bill “was held up before a second reading due to the intervention of C.A. Waldo, a professor of mathematics who happened to be passing through.” It seems equally likely that the legislators may simply have decided hey, fun’s fun, but we’ve got posterity to think about. In any case the bill was basically laughed out of the statehouse and no more was heard of it. As for Representative T.I. Record–well, I haven’t been able to confirm this, but some say he changed his name to Quayle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.