From the moment we are born, forms chase us…


The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, Paramount Pictures, 1976

From American Scientist:

From the moment we are born, standardized forms chase us: birth certificates, school applications, bank deposit slips, insurance claim forms, and, irritatingly, more. Benjamin Franklin, who famously remarked that only death and taxes are certain, lived in a simpler world than ours, one with no blanks to fill nor boxes to check. His was the world in which Bowditch grew to manhood—a world that he would help organize, systematize, and transform. Certainly a phenomenal ability to compute was one characteristic that distinguished the man; another was his unbending insistence on uniformity and order. In his world there was no place for sloppiness or error. Such things offended him deeply on a personal level.

Business practices in early 19th-century America would seem dangerously casual to a modern observer. Vital records were often nothing but paper scraps stuffed into drawers or impaled on metal spikes. At the East India Marine Society, Bowditch had helped to introduce printed forms for shipmasters to share commercial and navigational information, described as “blank forms and printed directions to be furnished Members going abroad, for the purpose of collecting nautical information and procuring natural curiosities.” For greater accuracy, transactions would be recorded when they happened, not at a later, more convenient time.

In 1827 he accepted an important post as actuary at Boston’s Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, known locally as the Life Office, bringing with him the same zeal for systemizing information and business processes that had proved successful at the East India Marine Society. At the Life Office he insisted that procedures be followed rigorously and without exception, even for Boston’s elite. Thornton concludes, “This business of having a mathematician run the Life Office created mixed responses, from praise to resentment, but ultimately the city’s upper crust appreciated the advantages of Bowditch’s methods.”

The belief that mathematics contracts the mind was not unique to the United States. Charles Babbage, the English mathematician who designed calculating engines at about the same time that Bowditch was making a name for himself in the States, found similar sentiments hurled at him. The attitude remains common today, a fact that might help explain why so many gifted students choose not to pursue mathematics as a profession.

“Salem’s Savant”, Daniel S. Silver, American Scientist