Simon Newcomb, the most important economist from Nova Scotia

Yes, Simon Newcomb (1835-1909).  Newcomb was a polymath and he made important contributions to time-keeping, astronomy (most of all; he was arguably the most famous American astronomer of the 19th century), statistics, mathematics, and economics.  He was especially good at coming up with new ways of calculating tables for almanacs and he was deeply interested in lunar and planetary tables.  He sought to bring the scientific method to research on parapsychology.  He even wrote a science fiction novel.  In preparation for my Nova Scotia trip I have been rereading his Principles of Political Economy.

In economics Newcomb is best known for producing the earliest version of the equation of exchange as a means of representing the quantity theory of money.  He had a remarkably good understanding of monetary velocity and the purchasing power of money, favoring a "tabular standard." 

The most interesting part of the text are the questions at the end of each chapter.  Many show that Newcomb knew more than the text itself let on.  Others are bizarre and would not be found in 2009.  How about this one?:

16. How does the modern system of production by large organizations operate upon the shiftless class who will never stick to a regular line of work?  Show why, when this class really wants to work, it is harder to get it than it would be in a primitive economy.

Despite its possible inappropriateness, it is nonetheless an interesting question about fixed capital and unemployment.  If you want insightful questions, here are a few picks, taken from a single page, chosen randomly:

Define what portion of the price paid for a coat goes to compensate the friction of exchange.

Does the proportion of the population engaged in intellectual pursuits tend to increase or diminish with the increase of wealth?

Is there any method of calculation by which we can approximate to the total population which the earth can sustain?  If so, state the method, and show what data are necessary to apply it.

Has cheap transportation of passengers and goods across the ocean tended to retard or to stimulate emigration?

I have seen many worse questions in contemporary principles texts.  He also formulated Benford's Law:

In 1881, Newcomb discovered the statistical principle now known as Benford's law, when he observed that the earlier pages of logarithm
books, used at that time to carry out logarithmic calculations, were
far more worn than the later pages. This led him to formulate the
principle that, in any list of numbers taken from an arbitrary set of
data, more numbers will tend to have the leading digit "1" than any
other leading digit

He was mostly self-taught.  He suffered problems at the age of seven and was removed from school and it seems he never returned.  Later his father tortured him with farm work to help improve his manual dexterity (it didn't seem to work).  He was an expert chess player and could recite large amounts of poetry from memory.  He started studying astronomy before he was ten.  Next week I will read his autobiography, available on-line.

Here are quotations from Newcomb; I have read that the "anti-flight" remarks are ripped from context and are misleading.  There is a crater, an asteroid, and a Canadian writing award named after him.

Here is Newcomb on libertarian ethics and wanting to be left alone

If you have any interest in the history of economic thought, or in 19th century North American intellectual history, you should read Simon Newcomb.  Here are some of his on-line works.  When he died, President Taft and many foreign dignitaries attended his funeral.  But today Newcomb is very much an underrated thinker and an underrated historical figure.

Newcomb's father once wrote to him: "You were an uncommon child for truth, I never knew you to deviate from it in one instance."


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