Obituary of E. B. Elliott

[Trade Journal]

Publication: Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Boston, MA, United States
vol. 16, p. 447-452



EZEKIEL BROWN ELLIOTT was born in Sweden, near Brockport, Monroe County, New York, on July 16, 1823. His father, John B. Elliott, was a doctor of medicine. In 1845 the family moved to Waterloo, Seneca County, New York. Ezekiel Elliott attended the High School in that place, and later, the Academy at Geneva, New York, where he was prepared for admission to Hamilton College which he entered in 1840. He graduated in 1844, having been a diligent student, displaying marked capacity for mathematics, astronomy, and physics.

Subsequent to graduation from college, Mr. Elliott pursued the vocation of teacher, until 1849, having charge of schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Lyons and Macedon, New York, and Eastport, Maine. In the last named year Mr. Elliott went to Boston and opened an office as "Actuary and Electrician." It was to work in the latter capacity that, during the first succeeding years, he devoted the greater part of his time. I find, in Mr. Elliott's handwriting, the following account of his connection with the extension of the telegraph service in the Eastern States: "Just before the latter half of the year 1849, I aided in opening the House Printing Telegraph line between Boston and New York, taking charge of the office in Boston, having previously spent a few weeks in Providence, R. I., making myself familiar with the operations necessary. Subsequently I became, for a short time, joint proprietor of the line with Mr. W. O. Lewis, of Hartford, Connecticut; and still subsequently Mr. Lewis and myself were joint superintendents. Later, I accepted the superintendency of the Boston, Troy, and Albany Printing [House] line of telegraph. I relinquished my relation with the telegraph, I think, in 1854." Mr. Elliott, however, industriously kept up bis work in physics. I find that in 1853 he was awarded a medal by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics' Association for "white flint telegraphic insulators." Among his subsequent inventions were a portable dynamo; an electric motor; a "storer" for electricity; and an "auroral telephone or phono-flash."

From 1855 onward, Mr. Elliott was increasingly engaged in actuarial work. In that and the following year he prepared for the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company tables of Two-Life Survivorships, comprising about 18,000 logarithmic values, computed on the basis of the London Actuary's life table, at four per cent interest. He had, in 1851, been employed by Mr. Amasa Walker, Secretary of State, in actuarial work upon the pension lists of Massachusetts; and in 1860 he prepared, at the instance of Mr. Oliver Warner, Secretary of State, a pamphlet, to be issued to city and town officials, containing Instructions concerning the Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Massachusetts (pp. 56, octavo). In all his actuarial work, whether done for private employers or for the Commonwealth, he won a high reputation for accuracy of computation, ingenuity in method, and wide range of knowledge.

In 1856 Mr. Elliott read before the Association for the Advancement of Science, at its Buffalo meeting, the following papers:

A. Tables of Prussian Mortality, interpolated for annual intervals of age; accompanied with formula and process for construction.

B. Discussion of certain methods for converting ratios of deaths to population, within given intervals of age, into the logarithm of the probability that one living at the earlier of two ages will attain the later; with illustrations from English and Prussian data.

C. Process for deducing accurate average duration of life, present value of life annuities, and other useful tables involving life-contingencies, from returns of population and deaths, without intervention of general interpolation.

At the meeting of the Association in Montreal, in 1857, Mr. Elliott presented a paper on the Law of Mortality in Massachusetts, with practical tables.

At the outbreak of the War of Secession, Mr. Elliott was called to join in the work of the United States Sanitary Commission, into which he entered with intense zeal and unflagging industry. In 1862 he made a Preliminary Report on the Mortality and Sickness of the Volunteer Forces of the United States Government during the Present War. This report led to his being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and to his appointment as Actuary to the Sanitary Commission. In the same year he made a Statistical Report to the United States Sanitary Commission on the Mortality and Sickness of the United States Volunteers. He also contributed to the Republic Magazine of July, 1863, a paper on Mutual Relations, as to Price, of Gold, Greenbacks, Silver Bullion, and Silver Coin.

In 1863 he was sent as a delegate from the American Statistical Association to the International Statistical Congress at Berlin, September 6th to 12th, where he presented a paper on the Military Statistics of the United States of America, which was published, in English, by the Royal Printer of Prussia (44 pages, 4to), with appended charts.

In 1864 Mr. Elliott was sent by the Sanitary Commission to inspect the hospital and ambulance services of the armies engaged in the Danish war. In the discharge of this duty, Mr. Elliott visited the hospitals of the contending forces on both sides. The results of his observations were submitted to the Sanitary Commission, but have not, so far as I am advised, been published. During his tour Mr. Elliott prepared a report on Prussian Mortality, which was published in the Zeitschrift of the Royal Statistical Bureau of Prussia.

At the close of the War of Secession, Mr. Elliott was appointed Secretary of the United States Revenue Commission, under the chairmanship of Mr. David A. Wells, to which had been assigned the almost hopeless task of bringing order out of the weltering chaos of customs duties and internal revenue taxes which had been imposed, in defiance of all recognized laws of finance, by an uninstructed Congress urged on by the continually recurring exigencies of a war of unexampled proportions. Mr. Elliott's services in this capacity were of incalculable value to the country, although they did not appear in a form distinct from the general work of the Commission. After the Commission was dissolved, and Mr. Wells became sole Special Commissioner of the Revenue, Mr. Elliott continued his work upon the revenue system.(1) On the discontinuance of Mr. Wells's office, in 1869,(2) Mr. Elliott was assigned to duty in the Bureau of Statistics, Treasury Department, under the present writer. On the accession of Mr. Edward Young to the charge of the Bureau, Mr. Elliott became its chief clerk, although his time continued to be devoted chiefly to the preparation of reports and tables for the use of the Secretary of the Treasury, and to answering special calls for information coming from Congress, where financial questions were resuming the importance they had lost during the periods of war and reconstruction.

In 1879 Mr. Elliott was appointed as the representative of the Treasury Department upon the commission, under the chairmanship of Mr. George William Curtis, constituted by President Grant to frame rules and regulations to govern the admission of persons into the civil service of the United States. He was chosen Secretary, and occupied that position until the discontinuance of the work of the Commission, which was, in fact, never legally dissolved, but ceased to act through the failure of appropriation on the part of Congress, owing to the hostility of the advocates of the Spoils System.

During this period Mr. Elliott continued to carry on his actuarial duties in the Treasury Department. On December 1, 1871, he published a letter on the Credit of the United States Government, with comparative tables, addressed to the Secretary of the Treasury. In 1872, at the request of the Superintendent of the Census, he prepared two papers, which are contained in the volume on Vital Statistics of the Ninth Census, as follows:

A. On the Table of Births, correcting manifest incongruities in the distribution, as to age, of the population under five years (pp. 517-531, inclusive).

B. Upon the Statistics of Mortality, their reduction to the practical form of life tables (pp. x-xv. inclusive).

In 1879 he was joined with Mr. Thomas L. James, afterwards Postmaster General, in a commission to report upon trials of the electric light in the post-office building of New York City, and to compare the relative economy of illuminating gas and of electricity in lighting. The report of the commission is on file in the Treasury Department.

In January, 1880, he prepared a series of Tables on the Credit of the United States Government, giving the prices of the several classes of the securities of the United States, together with the corresponding rates of interest realized to investors therein. These tables were published in the letter of the Secretary of the Treasury to the Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Senate, bearing date January 30, 1880.

Meanwhile he had continued his contributions to the meetings of the American Association. In 1874, he presented, at the Hartford meeting, a paper on the Future Population of the United States. In 1875, he presented to the Detroit meeting a paper on the Subsidiary Principle applied to Coinage and Money of Account.(3) At the Buffalo meeting of 1876, he presented a paper on the Relative Market Prices of Gold and Silver, and their influence on the Metallic Monetary Standard of the United States, accompanied by a diagram showing for thirty-four years the relative values of gold and silver; also the mint ratios adopted by the government with regard to the gold and silver coinage, and their successive changes. At the Nashville meeting of 1877, he presented two papers, one on the Monetary Standard, the other on Standard Time. The last-named subject had strongly attracted Mr. Elliott's attention, (4) and he continued to work in this line until the adoption of the principle throughout the United States.

In 1881, Congress passed an act creating the office of Government Actuary; and on the 1st of July Mr. Elliott was appointed to that office, which he held during the remainder of his life. The reports prepared by him, in this capacity, are too numerous and various to be individually noticed. Among the questions presented to him for investigation and discussion were the apportionment of representation in Congress under the Tenth Census; the condition of the United States Sinking Fund; the probable population of the country, at successive dates; the interest borne by various species of United States Government securities; and the effect of innumerable schemes for refunding the debt of the United States.(5) The calls upon Mr. Elliott as Government Actuary came from all the executive departments, from the Smithsonian Institution, from both Houses of Congress, and from many individual members and committees of Congress.

From the date of his appointment as Government Actuary, his official duties, and perhaps also his advancing years, restricted somewhat his contributions to the American Association. In 1881 he presented papers to the Association at its Cincinnati meeting; in 1882 he was President of Section I., and delivered an address upon Economic Science and Statistics; and in 1886 he made the last of his many contributions, at the Buffalo meeting, in a paper dealing with the rate of interest realized to investors in government securities, and offering formulas for determining the United States gold value of silver bullion, when the London price per ounce of standard silver and the price of Sterling Exchange between New York and London are known.

His last scientific work was in connection with the Metrological Society, in 1887. The second volume of the Proceedings of that Society contains several communications from his pen.

Mr. Elliott reached the close of his busy and useful life, at Washington, on May 24, 1888, in his sixty-third year. He was never married.

This brief review of his numerous and varied works fully justifies the conclusion that he was among the most meritorious of American statisticians and actuaries. Personally, Mr. Elliott was one of the most amiable of men, with a childlike simplicity of character and utterly incapable of offence or of guile.


Footnotes: --

(1.) At the Chicago meeting of the American Association, in 1868, Mr. Elliott presented a paper on "Redemption Periods of Monetary Values involving Life-Contingencies." Also, a paper on the "Metrical Unification of International Coinage," suggested by the International Monetary Conference of that year in Paris.

(2.) In this year Mr. Elliott prepared the extended section (60 pages, 4to) on the Moneys, Weights, and Measures of different Countries, embraced in Webster's Counting-House Dictionary.

(3.) In this year he wrote the article on Coinage in Johnson's Cyclopaedia.

(4.) In 1881, he joined with Professor Cleveland Abbe in forming a Universal Time Table, and in a report on Standard Time, made to the Metrological Society, of which he was an active member.

(5.) Senator Hawley relates an amusing incident concerning a scheme which had passed the House, and was being very indulgently considered by the Finance Committee of the Senate, when Mr. Elliott appeared before the Committee and in a few minutes showed conclusively that the measure, if adopted, would cost the government in excess of thirty-three millions of dollars. The bill was thereupon incontinently dropped, and no one could afterwards be found who had ever been in favor of it.


Keywords:Elliott : U-979 : U-980 : U-981
Researcher notes:The Elliott insulators, U-979, U-980, U-981, were made by the U. S. Pottery Co. in Bennington, VT. There was reference to a Bronze Award for Elliott in 1853. The number (12) and wording is identical, but the date of the reference books have been correctly recorded.
Supplemental information:Articles: 8604, 8612
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:October 7, 2008 by: Elton Gish;