Lester R Ford and the American Mathematical Monthly

Lester R Ford spent five years as editor of the American Mathematical Monthly, these coinciding fairly closely to the years during which the United States was involved in World War II. After completing his service he wrote an article giving a fascinating insight into the work involved: L R Ford, Retrospect, Amer. Math. Monthly 53 (10) (1946), 582-585. We give a version of the article below:
L R Ford, Illinois Institute of Technology

1. These five years.
This is the last issue of the MONTHLY to appear under my editorship. As I pause and look back over the past five years and while the details are fresh in my mind, it seems appropriate to relate for the readers something of the story of this eventful period.

My editorship has spanned the war years. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred while the first issue was being set into type. We are reading proof on the last number while treaties of peace are being debated in a broken world. The four dozen issues between them were produced amidst all sorts of difficulties engendered by the war. If the editor who took up his duties so light-heartedly five years ago could have foreseen the future, would he have recoiled from the task? I am not sure.

2. Secretarial troubles.
The most serious single difficulty arose from the scarcity of secretarial help. Chicago developed rapidly as a centre of war industry and hundreds of office staffs were hastily built up. Any young woman with a slight acquaintance with a typewriter could get a position at an inflated salary.

One after another the secretaries left us after a stay of a few weeks each. I have no idea how many there were and their very names are forgotten.

It takes a secretary several months to learn the details connected with the editorship of the MONTHLY. For nearly three years the work was done by girls who never got beyond the first few lessons in the duties of the position. There came finally one dark time when, for weeks, it seemed that another secretary was nowhere to be found. The editor seriously considered employing a mathematician to teach his classes--mathematicians being somewhat plentiful at the moment-and serving as his own typist. It never quite came to that desperate improvisation. The best of all secretaries appeared magically upon the scene. She remains to this day.

3. Printing difficulties.
I want to explain to our readers that for years it was never possible to get the MONTHLY Out on time. This was never anybody's fault: it was inherent in the war effort. We had to stand aside, of course, while work for the armed services was rushed through. From first to last the George Banta Publishing Company printed ten million books for the Army and Navy.

The following are comments of a member of the Banta staff. "Before the echoes of the Pearl Harbor catastrophe had died down, we were beset with a series of countless headaches which are concomitant with any such abrupt transition. But these headaches had to be endured with patience, and the new work proceed as best and with what speed it might, for the word had gone out from Washington and from Annapolis that this or that book, in such and such quantities, had to be put on our presses-and now!"

"Production plans and schedules were impossible of maintenance; a working schedule planned in the morning would be disrupted and changed through a directive or a priority plea by noon. And so it went; customers given a promise made in good faith were at times sadly disappointed-their work had to be delayed when war requirements demanded."

During the latter part of the war the shortage of skilled workmen made itself felt. The young printers, like the young of all callings, went into the service. The older men carried on. Some of our best proof came from the hands of these experienced men, but they had too much to do. There were delays and more delays.

The amount of paper available to us was reduced by governmental regulation. Consequently, it was necessary to reduce the number of pages printed during the year. Also, it was required that we adopt a cheaper grade of paper than we had used formerly. The result was a somewhat less attractive product. Photographic reproduction, for example, became impossible. These were small sacrifices.

The censorship was never a burden. Mathematical articles are seldom of a sort to give either aid or comfort to the enemy. Our readers had to forego a couple of papers on cryptography and one or two other small things.

4. Staples and the war.
The most amusing of all the war regulations was never put into effect. The pages from which you are reading are held together by two wire staples. It occurred to some planner that half of this metal might be saved for the making of munitions and a regulation was promulgated that only one staple should be used. Many of us felt that the havoc done to our magazines could not possibly be justified by the gain in war materials, which must indeed have been infinitesimal. The order was withdrawn.

5. The stream of papers.
The mathematicians, like others, put their shoulders to the wheel. The younger men went into the service. Many of all ages entered technical fields in connection with the armed forces or in war industries. Oldsters continued to teach, working with V-12 or ASTP, devoting long hours to the hurried instruction of heterogeneous groups, foregoing the usual summer vacations. Some followed all this with a period of teaching at Biarritz, Shrivenham, or Florence.

It is difficult to see who had time to write mathematical papers. Yet the stream of articles continued to flow. In all, some 450 longer papers passed through the hands of the editor-in-chief. There was never a time when there was a lack of material for the printer and there was never a conscious sacrifice of standards.

Some papers came, strangely enough, from abroad. There were some from India and several from the interior of China. France and Spain were represented by the indefatigable M Th├ębault. We printed articles from Great Britain, Belgium, Australia, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. But most of the papers came from the United States and Canada.

6. Rejected papers.
After careful study by competent referees about forty per cent of the papers presented were adjudged unsuitable for publication in the MONTHLY. Why? Perhaps an attempt to analyze the reasons for rejection will be of some help to future authors. Certainly a higher rate of acceptability will lighten the tasks of my successor.

There were a few papers which had little to do with mathematics and there were some which were simply wrong. But the main causes of rejection were three in number.

(1) Some papers are too technical for our readers. They are sound mathematically but they lie in fields of advanced research and narrow specialization. They would be read by few in the collegiate field. A paper which lacks some universality of appeal probably should be sent to a research journal.

(2) Some papers are what might, in not too derogatory a sense, be called trivial. They develop at length results that might be considered as mathematical exercises. They might better form contributions to the problem departments or to Discussions and Notes.

(3) Very often papers are poorly written. Fifty per cent of the papers which are ultimately accepted have to be revised. Nobody who has not been an editor can realize how much bad writing college professors can do. Many a paper composed in a lengthy, prolix, and awkward prose might have been saved by a sprightly and fluent style. Those who write on the teaching of mathematics are still the chief sinners in this group. My advice to you would be to swallow your pride and show your paper to a friend in the English department.

7. Angle trisections and Fermat's theorem.
I have not included in the previous count the long list of angle trisections and proofs of Fermat's last theorem. The diverting correspondence connected with these has done much to lighten the editorial load. The authors are blest with a boundless confidence and enthusiasm. "The new discovery is so important," says one trisector, "that I am in hopes of being invited to attend the Annual Meeting of the Association." Much of their work is copyrighted.

Sometimes the writer seeks profit, but this is exceptional. "For the disclosure of my discovery I should like to have some financial benefit" runs a letter from the West Indies. Another hopes that our publication of his results will help him "to find some one to finance the construction of my machine for interplanetary navigation."

My letters telling the authors firmly but not too bluntly that their work is erroneous have elicited varied responses. Some are angry. "I have become the dupe of bad incompetency." "I am very suspicious of your qualifications as to judging fairly the merits and demerits of my paper." Usually, however, the news is received in a spirit of resignation, born, no doubt, of oft-repeated experience. "I cannot make this any plainer and shall leave the matter in the hands of the university experts." "You know what happened to the men who first proclaimed that the earth is round." Usually we have parted friends, but I am sure that I have never convinced anybody of his errors.

This issue of the MONTHLY contains a scholarly article on Fermat's last theorem. I have no doubt that its author will received many "proofs" from these old friends of mine.

8. The associate editors.
The publication of the MONTHLY has been a cooperative undertaking. Foremost among the collaborators have been the dozen and a half associate editors. Those who have been in charge of departments have met and solved their own considerable editorial problems. All have given unstintingly of their time year after year to the end that the magazine might eventually reach your desk. My most pleasant recollections during these five years are of their unselfish devotion.

One of these will now become editor-in-chief for the period 1947-1951. Professor C V Newsom, editor during the war of the widely read department of War Information, brings to his task both editorial experience and familiarity with the affairs of the Association. He will be spared many of the difficulties of the war years and he can devote his full thought to the building of a greater MONTHLY. May he achieve a matchless success!

Last Updated November 2007