Isaac Asimov? W. A. H. Rushton? R. C. Winton? Edgar J. Westbury? Christopher Marlowe? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Standards of beauty are notoriously subjective and variable. Different qualities are prized over time, and distinct cultures value divergent attributes.
In the domain of Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy “Doctor Faustus” contains the following lines about her:
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium
An aspiring humorist proposed the “Helen” as a measure of female pulchritude. Thus, the “milli-Helen” (one thousandth of a “Helen”) was the amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship. The hyphen is sometimes omitted. This quip has been attributed to science fiction author Isaac Asimov and physiologist W. A. H. Rushton. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared in the London humor magazine “Punch” in 1954. The quip was attributed to an unnamed “professor of natural philosophy”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Scientists and aesthetes alike have heard with interest that the “unit of absolute beauty” has been invented by a professor of natural philosophy, who calls it a Helen and explains that it is divisible into millihelens. It is hoped that the millihelen may in time be interpreted in terms of power, when it should prove handy for launching a single ship.
In 1992 science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov made the interesting claim that he invented the term “millihelen” during a discussion with a friend in the early 1940s. See the 1992 citation given further below. QI has not yet located substantive support for this claim.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1938 a columnist of “The Salt Lake Tribune” of Utah asked several men to discuss the attributes they valued in women. Journalism instructor F. Fraser Bond’s response included an allusion to the tale of Helen of Troy, but he did not mention the “millihelen”: 2
“What I look for in woman is honesty,” he says. “Like most men, I would not underestimate a face that could launch even one ship, much less a thousand, or a figure like a telephone exchange, with every line busy. But, fundamentally, I admire in women the unequivocal truth and straightforwardness that I admire in men.”
In February 1954 the term “millihelen” appeared in “Punch” magazine as mentioned previously.
In February 1958 “The Observer” of London published a letter from a reader in Dunstable who described the “milli-helen”. The originator of the measure was not identified: 3
Lord Kelvin said that we can know nothing of a matter unless we can measure it. Psychologists, braced with their success in giving numerical values to I.Q., are now hoping to measure feminine beauty in precise units. The unit proposed is the “milli-helen,” the quantity of beauty required to launch exactly one ship.”
A few days later the term achieved further distribution when it appeared within a letter published in “The Manchester Guardian” of England: 4
A correspondent in a Sunday paper has suggested that psychologists, intoxicated by their success in measuring intelligence, are hoping to measure feminine beauty in precise units. He suggests that the unit proposed will be the “milli-helen”—“the quantity of beauty required to launch exactly one ship.”
In March 1958 the letter from “The Manchester Guardian” was reprinted with an acknowledgement in “The Milwaukee Journal” of Wisconsin. Thus, milli-helen moved from a U.K. periodical to a U.S. periodical. 5
In November 1958 “The New Scientist” of London printed a letter from R. C. Winton containing the term: 6
On reading Mr. Williams’ letter on the possibility of measuring the beauty of the human face (Letters, 30 October) it occurred to me that, when we are able to do so, some unit will be necessary.
May I suggest the milli-Helen, being the amount of beauty necessary to launch one ship?
In January 1959 “The New Scientist” of London printed a letter P. Lockwood suggesting that the term had been invented independently: 7
In the correspondence on “The mathematics of beauty,” I was interested in the concept of the milliHelen, defined as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. It may be of interest to record that this idea was conceived independently by an ex-colleague, Edgar J. Westbury. He and I worked this out some six months or so ago, extending the dimension into the opposite realm.
In February 1960 New York Herald Tribune presented a strangely modified definition: 8
Peter S. Feibleman credits Muriel Rukeyser with informing him that the scientists have discovered a new standard measurement for beauty, called the milli-Helen . . just enough beauty to sink one ship.
In 1981 a character in the novel “The Rebel Angels” by Robertson Davies referred to the “Rushton Scale”. The character elaborated on the definition and employed the term “millihelen”. In the alternate universe of the novel, W. A. H. Rushton was a mathematician. In this universe, Rushton was a Professor of Physiology at Trinity College, Cambridge: 9
“Surely you know it? Devised by W. A. H. Rushton, the great Cambridge mathematician? Well, it’s this way: Helen of Troy is accepted as the absolute in female beauty, and we have it on a poet’s authority that her face launched a thousand ships. But clearly ‘face’ implies the whole woman. Therefore let us call a face that launches a thousand ships a Helen. But what is a face that launches only one ship? Obviously a millihelen.”
In 1992 Isaac Asimov published a collection of jokes and anecdotes titled “Asimov Laughs Again”. He described an episode that occurred when he was a “graduate student in the early forties”: 10
A friend of mine, Mario Castillo, and I therefore whiled away one lunch period by making up units and I finally came up with the “millihelen,” which is enough beauty to launch one ship. (After all, Helen of Troy had a “face that launched a thousand ships.”) Years later, I saw “millihelen” in Time, and it wasn’t attributed to me, either.
In conclusion, based on current knowledge the creator of the term millihelen remains anonymous. The earliest known citation in 1954 within “Punch” magazine attributed the term to an unnamed “professor of natural philosophy”. The attribution to Isaac Asimov does not have solid support at this time.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration of an ancient ship used by Greeks and Romans from “Ancient History” by Hutton Webster in 1913.
(Great thanks to the 2011 and 2021 mailing list discussants on this topic including: Stephen Goranson, Jesse Sheidlower, Wilson Gray, Laurence Horn, Dave Hause, Pete Morris, and David Daniel. The 2011 discussion inspired QI to initiate this research and ultimately led QI to create this article.
Thanks to Pete Morris who found the crucial 1954 match in “Punch” magazine. Thanks to Jeffrey Graf at the Herman B Wells Library of Indiana University, Bloomington. Graf accessed and verified the match in “Punch”. Thanks to Stephen Goranson who pointed to the February 23, 1958 citation in “The Observer”. Thanks to Jesse Sheidlower who identified the February 26, 1958 citation in “The Manchester Guardian”.)
- 1954 June 23, Punch or The London Charivari, Volume 226, Issue Number 5936, Page Title: Punch: Charivaria, Quote Page 737, Column 3, Published at the Office of Punch, London, England. (Gale Cengage “Punch” Historical Archive) ↩
- 1938 February 27, The Salt Lake Tribune, What Do Men Want Women To Be Like? by Hazel Canning, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1958 February 23, The Observer, Letters to the Editor, Letter title: One ship, Letter from: (name of the letter sender is not legible; it might be “R. E. Dickinson”), Quote Page 8, Column 6, London, England. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1958 February 26, The Manchester Guardian, Miscellany: Measure for measure, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Manchester, England. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1958 March 12, The Milwaukee Journal, ‘He Is Ugly Enough to Stop Wrist Watch’ from Manchester Guardian News Service, Quote Page 22, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1958 November 13, The New Scientist, Volume 4, Number 104, Letters To the Editor, Letter title: The mathematics of beauty, Letter from: R. C. Winton of Creighton Avenue, N.2, Quote Page 1285, Column 3, The New Scientist, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1959 January 8, The New Scientist, Volume 5, Number 112, Letters To the Editor, Letter title: Unit of ugliness, Letter from: P. Lockwood of Beatrice Avenue, Lipson, Plymouth, Quote Page 93, Column 2, The New Scientist, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960 February 28, New York Herald Tribune, Section: Herald Tribune Book Review, Like February’s Weather, Miscellaneous by Maurice Dolbier, Quote Page E2, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1981 Copyright, The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies, Chapter: The New Aubrey IV, Quote Page 165 and 166, Macmillan of Canada: A Division of Gage Publishing Limited, Toronto, Canada. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1993 paperback (1992 Copyright of hardback) Asimov Laughs Again: More Than 700 Favorite Jokes, Limericks and Anecdotes by Isaac Asimov, Joke Number 365, Quote Page 200, HarperPerennial: HarperCollins Publishers, New York. ↩