The man who invented normal and a box to sort it out.


NORMALITY only seems older than god. In historic fact it dates from 1877, the year Francis Galton, proud father of eugenics and first cousin to Charles Darwin, adopted the term and invented a machine to demonstrate it. See his schematic, below, for "the Galton Box."

Galton believed that when we allow the unfit to survive they soon outbreed the tax-paying fit. We must find a way to halt their spread! He hired a carpenter to do an extraordinary thing: build a model of the hereditary sort system. Sounds farfetched, but then so was Edison's device, built that same year, to etch the human voice in wax.

Said to have been a likeable fellow, curious, energetic, an exacting perfectionist, Galton couldn't take a walk in the park without recording the physical merits of female passersby on another of his inventions, the punch card, hidden in his pocket. It is no stretch to imagine him supervising the carpenter to be certain this box was built to his specifications.

He meant the box to demonstrate that a large number of small accidents produces a statistical distribution of hereditary deviations, from idiocy to genius, from ugliness to beauty, madness to clarity, criminal degeneracy to moral excellence. And it worked.

Glass-fronted, the wooden box had a funnel at the top into which galton released lead shot. Falling through a succession of offset rows of precisely-placed pins, the shot sorted itself into vertical compartments at the bottom. and the shot distributed itself in the same curve each time. We have proof here! He had found it, the hereditary sort system — subhumans at one end, supermen at the other, Average Joes piled up in the middle. Now what name would he give to this breakthrough curve of his?

For two thousand years before Galton, norm had been the word for the carpenter's square, a tool for creating the perpendicular line and the perfect square. Calligraphers used a similar tool, also the norm, now called a T-square. (A century earlier, colleges where teachers learned to educate children in upright citizenship had borrowed the word for their own use normal schools.)

Inspired, I believe, by the carpenter's norm, Galton named it the normal curve. Like another of his inventions, the research questionnaire, normality moved out of the lab and set up shop in our lives. Though it does not look much like a bell, it is sometimes called the bell curve. Graded on that curve, you came to know that "normal" meant not "average" but "up to specifications," in this case the specs for humanness. Later, as he had hoped, the state used Galton's normal curve to screen draftees, immigrants, schoolchildren, so as to set the not-so-human apart.

Statistics draws its name from the german statistiks, "the arithmetic of state affairs." for his contribution to statistics, Galton is said by some to rank with Isaac Newton as a giant of science. and that may be. His name is also associated with his best-known fan, Adolf Hitler, who quoted Galton in Mein Kampf and credited him with inspiring the final solution.

People who are off spec were the target, the first casualties of a brave new idea, normality.

by Lucy Gwin

continued page 25: see 'moral arithmetic'


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