Howard Aiken

Biography of Elizur Wright

Elizur Wright III (his father and grandfather were also named Elizur Wright) was born on 12 February, 1804, in South Canaan, Litchfield County, Connecticut, USA. He was the first child of Elizur Wright (1762-1845) and his second wife Clarissa Richards Wright (1771-1843). Elizur Wright-father already had 6 children from his first marriage, and will have 4 more children after Elizur (Clarissa, b. 1805; Martha, b. 1807; Lucy Mix, b. 1811; James Richard, b. 1814).

Elizur Wright-father was a son of Elizur Wright (1718-1787), a sea captain and farmer in Canaan, Connecticut. He was a mathematician and Phi Beta Kappa Graduate from Yale, 1781.

In the spring of 1810 the family moved from Canaan to Tallmage, Ohio, making the journey in a two-horse carriage with an ox-team to transport their household goods. Their progress was necessarily slow, and it was nearly six weeks before they reached Talmage, as it was generally necessary to camp at night by the way-side. This romantic journey, the building of their log-cabin, the clearing of the forest, and above all his solitary watches in the maple-orchard (where he might perhaps be attacked by wolves), made a deep poetic impression on young Elizur, and furnished him with a store of pleasant memories in after life.

In Tallmadge Elizur Wright-father became a founder and teacher of 1st Tallmadge High School in 1815, and later founded the Western Reserve College in 1826. He was a deacon of Congregational Church and abolitionist leader. Wright-father was also a major landowner and developer of coal.

After studying in the local primary school, the young Elizur Wright entered Yale College in 1822. He helped to support himself during his college course not only by teaching in winter, but by making fires, waiting on table, and ringing the recitation bell. In spite of these menial services, he was popular in his class and had a number of aristocratic friends. He was one of the best scholars in his class, first in mathematics, and so fluent in Greek that to the end of his life he could read it with ease.

Howard Aiken

Elizur Wright did not wait for graduation. In May, 1826, the Groton Academy suddenly wanted a teacher, and he was invited to take the position. In his school at Groton was a pretty, dark-eyed girl named Susan Clark (1810-1875). Elizur Wright became interested in Miss Clark, and three years later, on 12 September 1829, they were married. Elizur and Susan Wright had 10 children: John Seward (1832-1888), Charles Storrs (1837-1858), Mary Vashon (1838-1879), Ellen Martha (1839-), Lucy Jane (1842-1867), Kathleen (1844-), Winifred (1845-1873), Walter Channing (1846-1917), Ida Russell (1848-1936), and Anne Carroll (1852-1870).

Ill health came next in turn, a natural consequence of his severe life at Yale College. Wright was obliged to leave his school, and for an occupation he circulated tracts for the American Congregational Society. Late in 1829, Wright moved with his young wife to Hudson, Ohio to accept an appointment as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Western Reserve College. There he remained till 1833, strengthening himself in the repose of matrimony for the conflict that lay before him.

In December of 1833 the first national anti-slavery convention met in Philadelphia, and Elizur Wright was unanimously chosen secretary of it. After that he went to New York to edit a newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Reporter, remaining there until 1839.

In 1846, Elizur Wright established a newspaper, the Chronotype, in opposition to the Government policy, which he conducted until it was absorbed by the Commonwealth (1850), of which also he was for a time the editor.

Between 1853 and 1858, besides editing the newspaper Railroad Times, Elizur Wright gave his attention to invention and mechanics, constructing a spike-making machine, a water faucet, and an improvement in pipe coupling. He patented the last two ((US patent 10082 and US patent 18116), and manufactured them for a short time. Later in 1860 he devised and patented the Arithmeter (see Arithmeter of Elizur Wright), a form of cylindrical slide rule.

In 1852 an insurance broker placed an advertising booklet in his hand. Elizur Wright looked it over and perceived quickly enough that no company could undertake to do what this one pretended to and remain solvent. The booklet served him for an editorial, and he embarked on a successful crusade to reform the insurance industry. In 1853, Wright published his volume "Life Insurance Valuation Tables".

Elizur Wright campaigned for valuation laws requiring life insurance companies to hold sufficient reserves to guarantee that benefits would be paid, and nonforfeiture laws requiring the companies to provide surrender values. He devised a new formula for finding the values of policies of various terms, known as the accumulation formula, and served as state commissioner of insurance for Massachusetts, from 1858 to 1866. In 1873, Wright also published another volume entitled The Politics and Mysteries of Life Insurance. In addition to his inventions and writing, he became a consulting actuary for various life-insurance companies in the Commonwealth.

Elizur Wright died on 21 November, 1885, in the midst of a rain-storm which lasted six days and nights in Medford. He lies interred at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Massachusetts.