Obituary of E. B. Elliott

[Trade Journal]

Publication: Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington

Washington, DC, United States
vol. 11, p. 470-473



EZEKIEL BROWN ELLIOTT was born on July 16, 1823, in the village of Sweden, Monroe county, New York, and died of heart failure, on May 24, 1888, at Washington, D. C., after only a few hours' illness.

He was the second child of John Brown Elliott, M. D., and Joanna Balch. In his boyhood he attended the high school at Waterloo, N. Y., and the academy at Geneva, N. Y., and subsequently entered Hamilton College, whence he was graduated in 1844. Immediately upon graduation he engaged in teaching, first at Grand Rapids, Mich., and subsequently at Maccdon, N. Y.; Lyons, N. Y.; Lubec, Me., and Eastport, Me. From the latter place he removed to Boston, Mass., in 1849, and there became an actuary and electrician. Late in the last-mentioned year he aided in opening the House printing telegraph line between New York and Boston and took charge of the Boston office, having previously spent a few weeks in Providence, R. I., where he made himself familiar with the necessary routine. Subsequently he and Mr. W. O. Lewis, of Hartford, Conn., became for a short time joint proprietors of the line, and still later they were joint superintendents. Finally he became superintendent of the Boston, Troy and Albany (House) printing telegraph line. During these years he made several inventions, among which may be mentioned a white-flint telegraph insulator, for which he received a bronze medal from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics' Association in 1853. In 1854 he gave up telegraphy in order to undertake for the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company the preparation of tables of two-life survivorships, which comprised, when finished, about eighteen thousand logarithmic values, computed on the basis of the London actuaries' life table, at four per cent. Later on he was engaged in computing annuity, survivorship, and other tables, and in 1860 he prepared a set of official " instructions concerning the registration of births, marriages, and deaths in Massachusetts," the latter work being done under the direction of Hon. Oliver Warner, then secretary of the Commonwealth. While in Boston he united with the late Uriah A. Boyden and others in investigating the claims of spiritualism, hypnotism, etc., and, failing to find satisfactory evidence of the truth of these claims, he was ever after their emphatic opponent.

Upon the breaking out of the civil war in 1861 he came to Washington as actuary of the United States Sanitary Commission, and of his work relating to the first battle of Bull Run it has been said that probably "there is no instance in history in which the causes of the loss of any considerable battle have been so thoroughly sifted and examined on the spot, and within a week after the disaster, and in which the minutest details affecting the result have been so carefully preserved and their influence so accurately noted." Statistical work respecting the personnel and condition .of the United States armies occupied him till 1863, when, as a delegate from the American Statistical Association, he attended the International Statistical Congress at Berlin. After the close of the congress he visited the German and Danish armies engaged in the Schleswig-Holstein war, which was then virtually over, and was afforded unusual opportunities for inspecting the hospitals and becoming acquainted with the methods adopted in caring for the sick and wounded.

In 1865 he was made secretary to the commission, consisting of Messrs. Wells, Colwell, and Hays, for revising the United States revenue laws ; and subsequently he continued in a similar relation with Mr. Wells when that gentleman became special commissioner of the revenue, in the office of the Secretary of the Treasury. After the expiration of Mr. Wells' official term, Mr. Elliott remained in the office of the Secretary of the Treasury until September, 1870, when he was made chief clerk of the U. S. Bureau of Statistics. He was transferred to the Bureau of the Mint about 1878, and in July, 1881, he was appointed to the newly created office of government actuary, which he held till his death. Notwithstanding the nominal changes in his official position, from 1867 to 1888 Mr. Elliott's duties were always substantially the same, namely, those of an actuary employed in the office of the Secretary of the Treasury, and us such he bore a large part in the operations connected with the refunding of the United States war debt. In addition to the offices already mentioned, he was appointed by General Grant, in June, 1871, a member of the first Civil Service Commission, which place he held until the close of the active operations of the commission, in March, 1875.

Mr. Elliott was elected a member both of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Statistical Association in 1856, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1857, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1864, and subsequently of the American Horological Society. He was one of the founders of the Washington Philosophical Society in 1871, of the American Meteorological Society in 1873, and of the Cosmos Club in 1878.

Both in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in the Washington Philosophical Society Mr. Elliott was very prominent, contributing many papers to their proceedings; he was vice-president of the former association and chairman of its economic section in 1882, and a member of the governing body of the Philosophical Society almost continuously from its foundation to the time of his death. The titles of his numerous papers may be found in the publications of the societies to which he belonged, in the documents both of the United States Sanitary Commission and of the Treasury Department, in the Report on the Ninth Census of the United States (1870), in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, and in other places. It will suffice to mention here his paper "On the Military Statistics of the United States of America," which was read before the International Statistical Congress in Berlin in September, 1863, and in recognition of which he received a letter from the Crown Prince Frederick, afterward Emperor of Germany ; and his " Tables of money, weights, and measures of the principal commercial countries of the world, with their equivalents as used in the United States and as known in the metric system," which was published in 1869 in Webster's Counting House Dictionary.

One of Mr. Elliott's most notable achievements was the discovery of a method by which the labor of computing life tables was enormously reduced. The mathematical theory of this method was communicated by him to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in August, 1866, but no abstract was furnished for publication, and probably the only accessible account of the method is that contained in his "Remarks upon the statistics of mortality," in volume 2 of the Ninth Census of the United States (June 1, 1870), pages ix to xvi.

In person Mr. Elliott was portly and slightly below the medium height. Although not a fluent speaker, his address was agreeable and his manner such as to indicate clearly the sturdy honesty and straightforwardness of his character. To these sterling qualities he united a kindliness of disposition and a keen sense of honor, which gave him a high place in the estimation of all who knew him.



Keywords:Elliott : Bennington Pottery : U-979 : U-980 : U-981
Researcher notes:The Elliott insulators, U-979, U-980, U-981, were made in the 1850's by the U. S. Pottery Co. in Bennington, NY.
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:October 7, 2008 by: Elton Gish;