Sixteen Years Without a Birthday

Brander Matthews | published Feb, 1895

added May 25, 2024
cover Image
First Date of Publication
Feb, 1895
Original Source
Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Additional Publication Information
In the book of collected stories of the author, called "Tales of Fantasy and Fact", published in 1896, the author noted that the story was written in 1894.
Original Source Type
Magazine - General
Medium
Short Story
Original Language
English
Kasman Review
Not in Kasman Database
ISFDB
Tags
Summary: A tall tale about unusual birthday pattern.

Story Tag Line: “A quadruplex birthday will be odd enough, I grant you,” he began, “ but I don’t think it quite as remarkable as the case of the lady who had no birthday for sixteen years after she was born.”

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Reviews

  • Vijay Fafat
    Published on

    A soldier, an artist, a journalist and a professor of mathematics are four school-buddies meeting up after 10 years, on a day which also happens to be Jack, the soldier’s birthday. As they raise a toast to him as the clock strikes midnight, the soldier mentions that his real birthday was yesterday, and with the celebratory toast going over midnight, he has effectively had a 3-day birthday, asking his friends to try a 4-day stretch the next time. So then the mathematician speaks and says,

    “A quadruplex birthday will be odd enough, I grant you,” he began, “ but I don’t think it quite as remarkable as the case of the lady who had no birthday for sixteen years after she was born.”

    Thus it becomes a mathematical problem. Combined with some geographical and leap-year calculations, one is led toward a solution reminiscent of a minor Asimovian tale. The kicker comes in the end as an unwitting but sharp commentary on today’s fake-news problem:

    “ I say,” the journalist began, “ that yarn about your grandmother was very interesting. It is an extraordinary combination of coincidences. I can see it in the Sunday paper with a scare-head

    ‘ SIXTEEN YEARS WITHOUT A BIRTHDAY !’

    “Do you mind my using it ?
    “ But it isn’t true,” said the professor.
    “ Nott true?” echoed the journalist.
    “ No,” replied the mathematician. “ I made it up. I hadn’t done my share of the talking, and I didn’t want you to think I had nothing to say for myself.”
    “ Not a single word of truth in it ?” the journalist returned.
    “ Not a single word,” was the mathematician’s answer.
    “ Well, what of that ?” the journalist declared. “ I don’t want to file it in an affidavit —I want to print it in a newspaper.”

    End-Note: Alex Kasman had raised an objection that this tale was not mathfiction since simple references to a mathematician and birthday-geography would not make for mathfiction. I have a slightly different view. The fact that the puzzle-poser is a mathematician is not as relevant to the story, though I do think that in that time period of late nineteenth century, referencing a mathematician was an important clue that the writer considered the tale to be of numerical / mathematical bend. The process of unraveling what is essentially a calendar number problem (coupled with a bit of geography of international dateline) gives it an overall feel of a small mathematical puzzle. I suspect 90 out of 100 will walk away thinking they had read something quantitative. Given its antiquity, I think it makes sense to include it. But as always, the reader should decide for herself.