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The 1020-year old man


Random News from the Newspapers on Microfilm Collection: The 1020-year old man and a mathematical puzzle.

Found in the Bellingham Herald, Jan. 2, 1914, page 8:



 “How Old Is Fouts?” Eternal Question — Submits Mathematical Problem Showing Him to Be 47 or 1,020 — Which Is Correct?

“Several millions of people, in as many aeons of time, have puzzled over that staple problem of how old is Ann. At the city comptroller’s office, however, the employes are agitating their gray matter over an entirely new phase of the question and are trying to find out how old is Fouts. No one as yet has solved the problem.”

“W.H. Fouts, who lives on G street, and who came to Bellingham when Puget Sound was nothing but a whisper, annually registers at the city hall in order that he may exercise the right of every American citizen to cast a ballot at elections. Each year Fouts is asked to give his age, a requirement imposed on all who register, even upon women, and each year Fouts evades the issue by swearing that he is of legal age. Thus all efforts to find out exactly how old he is have been frustrated.”

“The curiosity of the deputies in the comptroller’s office has not been satisfied with these evasions. Every time Fouts came to register efforts to find out his exact age have been redoubled. The climax of the situation arrived this morning when Fouts came to register for the privilege of voting in 1914.”

Submits Problems for Clerks.

“This time Fouts told the deputies his age. Of course he did not come right out with it and say he was 54 or 82 or anything as specific as that, but he left them a little arithmetical problem, which, if they are able to solve it correctly will tell the deputies the answer to their queries.”

“On the back of one of the campaign cards of mayor-elect J.P. deMattos was written and handed to the deputies the following mathematical problem: ‘Twenty plus eight times twelve divided by four minus two times six plus ten times eight divided by four plus twenty.'”

“There seems to be several ways of reading that equation and it is this that is causing confusion to the clerks in the comptroller’s office. One way theyfigure it Fouts is 1,020 years old and the other way he is only 47. Everybody knows that Fouts is not 1,020 and most of those who are acquainted with him are reasonably certain he is more than 47.”

 “The problem is still puzzling the force in the comptroller’s office and anyone who can bring around a solution will be greeted with great gobs of joy by the perplexed clerks.”

As it happens William Henry Fouts was a well known Whatcom County pioneer and teacher. He arrived in Olympia from Iowa in 1871 and two years later relocated to the Bellingham area. His name surfaces frequently in our digital collection of historic newspapers.

He also shows up in a number of printed histories such as The Fourth Corner by Lelah Jackson Edson (a book selected as one of historian George Tweney’s list of 89 important titles covering Washington State, click this link to see WSL’s holdings for the Tweney 89)

Another, and more revealing title, with information on Mr. Fouts is entitled History of Whatcom County, edited by Lottie Roeder Roth (1926). A nice little biographical profile on our subject states he was born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1843, making him 70 years old at the time of the mathematical puzzle. So with that in mind, can anyone out there provide a solution of where to place the punctuation marks on Mr. Fouts’ math problem?

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One Response to “The 1020-year old man”

  1. I put this into Google:

    20 + 8 * 12 / 4 – 2 * 6 + 10 * 8 / 4 + 20

    They interpreted it thus:

    20 + ((8 * 12) / 4) – (2 * 6) + ((10 * 8) / 4) + 20 = 72

    Which is pretty darn close to 70, so maybe correct (enough)?