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updated: 1/30/2014 5:41 AM

Inventor's crusade against fractions may be 5/16ths done

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  • Video: Does song simplify fractions?

  • Video: Evenson on Fractions

  • Buying the first Rolling Meadows house that offered a basement, 85-year-old retired engineer Ed Evenson has used his workshop to make everything from pocket sundials to educational children's toys.

       Buying the first Rolling Meadows house that offered a basement, 85-year-old retired engineer Ed Evenson has used his workshop to make everything from pocket sundials to educational children's toys.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Giving students a ruler divided into 10ths of inches makes sense to Ed Evenson, who is on a crusade to get schools to use decimal points instead of fractions.

       Giving students a ruler divided into 10ths of inches makes sense to Ed Evenson, who is on a crusade to get schools to use decimal points instead of fractions.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Relying on his vast library boasting centuries of books, 85-year-old Ed Evenson builds a case in his quest against the teaching of fractions.

       Relying on his vast library boasting centuries of books, 85-year-old Ed Evenson builds a case in his quest against the teaching of fractions.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • During his yearlong crusade against fractions, 85-year-old retired engineer Ed Evenson researched centuries of math books before writing his booklet seeking to replace fractions with decimals.

       During his yearlong crusade against fractions, 85-year-old retired engineer Ed Evenson researched centuries of math books before writing his booklet seeking to replace fractions with decimals.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Fractions are confusing, and confusion leads to mistakes, says Ed Evenson, an 85-year-old retired engineer who wrote this booklet showing how working with decimals is easier than calculating with fractions.

       Fractions are confusing, and confusion leads to mistakes, says Ed Evenson, an 85-year-old retired engineer who wrote this booklet showing how working with decimals is easier than calculating with fractions.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

Having written books, invented gadgets, designed educational toys, started companies, built his own collection of pocket sundials and spearheaded community projects, 85-year-old retired engineer Ed Evenson leads a quest to rid the world of fractions.

"It's become a thing with me," Evenson says of his yearlong crusade against fractions, which he argues are confusing and can be replaced easily with a simple decimal point. Instead of teaching children how to multiply by 5/16ths, we should just let them multiply by .3125, he says.

Evenson, a history buff, uses centuries of logic to craft the arguments in his booklet titled, "The Drive for the Decimal Inch: Persuading the Educators." Surveyors and industry, with its milling machines, micrometers and LED calipers, use decimals. Even TV meteorologists now shun fractions to report 6.5 inches of snow.

A widower (his wife, Barbara, died of breast cancer a dozen years ago), Evenson still lives in the first Rolling Meadows house built with a basement, which he bought in 1954. In addition to his workshop, the home boasts a massive library. Leafing to the Decimal Arithmetick chapter in his copy of William Leybourn's "Cursus Mathematicus," published more than 300 years ago, Evenson points to the conclusion, "Decimal operations do afford so great help, that many Ages before have not produced a more useful Invention."

That's not even the oldest book on Evenson's shelves. He owns a 1529 copy of Apianus' "Cosmographicus Liber." Written in Latin, "that's the only one I can't read," Evenson says.

Born in Montana, Evenson spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., after his father, Arthur, became one of the new Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s original employees. After the death of his father, Evenson finished high school in Racine, Wis., where his mother, Ruby, moved to be closer to relatives and become a teacher. Evenson still cherishes the Christmas present he got as a 5-year-old from his parents -- a complete set of the 1933 Compton Encyclopedia. He noted on an inside cover that it was a present from "Ruby and Daddy."

"I didn't know how to spell mother, but I knew how to spell Ruby," Evenson explains. "I was a horrible speller. Math was my good subject. English was my bad subject. And history was between the two."

Needing his mother's signature to enlist in the Army when he was just 17, Evenson was part of the force sent to occupy Japan after World War II. But he developed rheumatic fever, which damaged his heart, and was sent home on a hospital ship. Public Law 16, the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1943, paid for his industrial engineering education at the University of Wisconsin after he tested into the program.

He married in 1951 and worked for an electrical company before launching his own business making testing equipment for automobile shops. In 1972, Evenson wrote his first book, "Automotive Test Equipment You Can Build." He signed a copy for his teacher mother with the misspelling, "Your son, the writter."

"I thought she'd be tickled. It didn't tickle her at all," Evenson remembers.

He's written other books on auto repair, a children's book about the history of the calendar and "The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876," in which he makes the case that Elisha Gray should get much of the credit that generally goes to Alexander Graham Bell. A father of three boys, Evenson made a metal armillary sphere that was marketed and sold as an education "Starfinder" for kids in the late 1960s. His other educational toys included weather forecasting kits and the "RIC 920," a rock identification computer that used basic tests and mechanical punch cards to identify minerals.

"What I do now is write for the grandkids -- things I think they should know about, but don't," says the grandfather of nine. "This campaign I'm on now is because of my engineering background. As far as I'm concerned, fractions are a waste of time."

Convincing educators of that might not be successful, admits Evenson. He never could get companies to buy his simple attachment that turned ordinary staplers into bookbinder tools, and even though he helped bring a drive-through mailbox to his local post office, the post office later closed.

As a kid, Evenson learned fractions.

"I just accepted it. I didn't have any opinions in those days," he says, adding that today's students should be given rulers with markings for each 10th of an inch. The only fractions he doesn't want eliminated are the "conversational fractions," he says, explaining how people still should know concepts such as half-baked, three-quarters of an hour or how to divide a pizza into thirds.

"That's all you need to know about fractions," Evenson proclaims. "Multiplying 7-and-5/8ths by 13-and-7/64s is ridiculous."

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