Galton Institute Home Page March 1999 Newsletter Contents Newsletter Index

Who Is Sir Francis Galton?

Gary E Pittman

Despite his lasting contributions to many fields of science, Francis Galton’s name is not well-known even to the average science graduate. In the first of a series of articles, Gary Pittman describes how a chance discovery started him on a quest to discover the genius of Galton. Later articles will describe the results of that quest, focussing on Galton’s statistical insights rather than the eugenic theories for which he is more widely known.

Gary Pittman is an engineer (joint inventor of the light emitting diode used in the first digital watches and pocket calculators), manager and enthusiast for “statistical thinking”. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

I. The Quincunx

“There is only one good; knowledge;
And only one evil; ignorance.”

Socrates, 470-399 BC.

The Quality Director

I had been hospitalised now for about five weeks, and was due for release after one more week, so I had an appointment to meet with my boss out at the company, a manufacturer of hi-tech components for computer manufacturers. He was of the old school: talk straight, be straight, and demand results. He was admired by most of his subordinates, except for the “pseudo-intellectuals” who thought he couldn’t understand their hi-sci methods and projects, who tried to embarrass him in staff meetings, and who caused everyone a lot of trouble by standing in the way of progress.

“Well, Gary”, Tom said, “How are you feeling?”, after which a little small talk, and then down to business. “How do you feel about managing the Military Unit now?” “Fine; I managed it for more than 10 years with good results, no reason I can’t continue to do the same.” “Good results” was a pointed understatement, since the Military Unit had contributed a high and steady profit year after year, making up in most years for a poor financial performance of the other units of the division.

“I agree with you,” he said, but then the other shoe fell, and Tom added, “but I’d like for you to do something else for me.” “I want you to be my Quality Director. You made a lot of money with the Military business, but you can make a lot more for me by improving quality.”

But now I would have no direct reports, and would have to rely on Tom’s authority and my own persistence to obtain co-operation for the tasks ahead.

There was still some loyalty among my old reports, and one of them, Ed, who had been my engineering manager, volunteered one of his engineers to help me with developing training methods for Statistical Process Control. The plan was to train everybody in the division.

The Engineer from Persia

Ed told me that Sogand had volunteered to assist me, because she already had some academic training with statistical methods. I was delighted. We had hired Sogand two years earlier, in 1985. She had a masters degree in industrial engineering from Purdue.

From the beginning she stood out like a flame in the dark, because of her ability as an engineer, and charm as a person. When I interviewed her for the job, we discussed many things, and I quickly realised that fortune had brought to us an unusually capable young lady. I kept thinking of questions to ask her, just to prolong the interview. I asked her the meaning of the statistical term “Sigma”, (standard deviation) and she produced a good answer. And so began a friendship that has lasted right up to the present.

Our first assignment was to begin instruction of SPC - Statistical Process Control. Sogand had had some exposure to this at Purdue so, together, we began researching the best methods to use.

During this time, our largest customer, a huge aircraft company, which had embarked recently on a similar journey to improve quality, called and asked if we would be interested in a two-day seminar about SPC.

The Quincunx

As a part of the seminar, a video was shown of an instrument used for teaching statistical principles: it had the strange name of “The Quincunx”. It was quite beautiful, handmade of polished wood and brass, and filled with white marbles. It seemed to do a good job of making abstract concepts visible and easily understood.

We decided to get one for our classes. When it arrived, there were a few pages of instructions included, and on one of these pages it said, “The word Quincunx is from the Latin and means five-twelfths or five ounces. An ancient coin by that name was identified by a pattern of five raised dots on its face -- four at the corners of a square and one in the center. Since this is the repeated pattern of the pins through which the marbles must drop in the Quincunx, Sir Francis Galton (who invented the device in the 1800s) gave it that name.”. Now, for the first time, I see the name - Sir Francis Galton.

My first thought was, “What was the Quincunx used for in the 1800s?” Was it some sort of gambling device? A game? It never occurred to me that it was used for demonstrating statistical concepts; surely not so long ago as the 1800s.

As Sogand and I began our teaching, we started with “hourly” personnel, and then, as we gained confidence and expanded our materials, we conducted classes for engineers, supervisors, and even managers. The Quincunx became an essential part of our teaching methods.

The Search Begins

One day, on my way home from work, I was passing the Audelia Road Branch Library, and I thought, “Why not drop in and see if I can learn something about Sir Francis Galton. If I’m successful, I’ll surprise Sogand during the next class.”

Luckily, I managed to get the help of the librarian, Mrs Ann Shelton. Our first attempts to find Sir Francis yielded almost nothing, but Ann was patient and knew the system, and how to work it, and soon we were requesting books from other libraries around the country, and I was communicating with England. The first place we looked was in a Biographical Dictionary, which is a compilation of condensed biographies of those who have achieved something noteworthy. It is, apparently, also a distinction to have one’s picture included. And such was the case with Sir Francis Galton. Almost an entire page was devoted to Sir Francis. So now I knew that Francis Galton was a “noteworthy” person. At the time, my impression after reading the little biography was that Sir Francis was a quite proper, hard working Victorian scientist who had made some interesting contributions.

But now, after several years of study, and two trips to London, I know that little biography is only a glimpse of a great life, one dedicated to practical solutions for human problems.

The English Lady

The Dallas Public Library computer gave Ann Shelton a reference that associated Francis Galton with a British scientific journal, BIOMETRIKA, and she was able to get the mailing address of the editor, Professor Sir David Cox. My letter to Sir David was answered by Mrs Janet Abrahams. This turned out to be one of my life’s great strokes of good fortune. For it turned out that there was no better choice than Janet. She knew everything I wanted to know, mostly from memory, and she was so generous in her answers to me. Janet was really the key to my search for Francis Galton. We are friends and still correspond after nine years, and Jan’s letters are still delightful.

Janet was responsible for circulation for BIOMETRIKA, a world-renowned journal for “applied statistics”.

But she had also been the personal assistant for many years to Egon S. Pearson, a famous statistician, and head of the statistics department at University College London. His father was Karl Pearson, selected by Francis Galton to be the first professor of applied statistics at UCL, and also the first such appointment in the world.

Now I had three sources for information: Ann Shelton and the Dallas Public Library system; Janet Abrahams with her connections at Biometrika and many friends who belonged to the world of Galtonian statistics; and finally, my own search for some of the editions of Galton’s books which were published during his lifetime, but which are not easily available through the library system.

At this point, I was beginning to feel like an archaeologist opening an Egyptian tomb, a sense of almost disbelief at what I was discovering, and a lot of excitement. But, whereas the archaeologist knew something of what he was looking for and what to expect; I had no idea (at first) who Francis Galton was, or what he had accomplished.

As I learned more, two ideas were almost constant: one, that virtually no one in America in the industrial world had ever heard of Francis Galton, and two, his ideas were being used constantly in industry to improve product quality, and manufacturing efficiency. (These being only a small part of his global legacy, as we shall see.) Gradually, I developed an almost apostolic compulsion to tell others about this man who, I had come to believe, understood the requirements for the human race to save and maintain a decent world.