University of Minnesota

Sir Ronald Fisher and his “Millionaire” Calculator

R. A. Fisher, often called the father of modern biometry, became a close friend and colleague of William Gosset, statistician at Dublin’s Guinness brewery, largely through correspondence. They laboriously and separately calculated the distributions of t; Gosset, for example, calculated all values for t=1 from N=2 to N=30–out to seven decimal places–and found that his were almost identical to Fisher’s calculations Gosset’s t-test became famous under his pseudonym “Student” that he used to evade the brewery’s proprietary policy. Fisher’sdaughter, Joan Fisher Box,described the scene in a biography of her father:

“One image is [of] Fisher working his ‘Millionaire’ [his self-designed mechanical calculator] at [his laboratory in] Rothamsted, a large machine on which one turned a crank to set the number and inserted a plunger to start its noisy operation at each step; one imagines Gosset putting his hand-operated ‘Baby Triumphator’ into his work sack and carrying it home to work on the tables in the evenings, calculating t by his formula, checking with Fisher’s results, and recalculating doubtful values” (Box 1978, 116-117).

Box went on to describe her father’s passion for his calculator:

“[Fisher] liked his Millionaire calculating machine and was disdainful of the up-to-date desk calculators which were in plentiful supply by the mid-1930s. The Millionaire stood on its own stand. It was clumsy to move and operate and it made a noise like an old threshing machine. [But] Fisher defended it because it did multiply instead of doing multiplication by repeated addition like the other calculators. He could make it perform complicated calculations both quickly and accurately. Others also worked much with the machine and appreciated its virtues, like Frank Yates at Rothampsted, who . . kindly permitted himself to be photographed at the Millionaire still in his office at Rothampsted in 1974.” (ibid.)

Fisher devoted much of his life to solutions of genetic and evolutionary questions using statistical methods. Using variance components, he demonstrated that human inheritance was entirely consistent with Mendelian principles. But he is mostly known for provision of tabular distributions of statistics for common use that became popular. With the small experimental samples used at the time, it was essential to know the theoretical distribution to assess the results. He was one of the first to develop the idea of designing experiments to gain more precise information for a given amount of experimental effort, thus developing the methodology of modern biometry.

A short biography of R. A. Fisher, detailing his career and complex relationship with the famed mathematician Karl Pearson, is available here.