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FEATURE ARTICLE

The First Digit Phenomenon

A century-old observation about an unexpected pattern in many numerical tables applies to the stock market, census statistics and accounting data

T. P. Hill

Figure 1. First significant digits in groups of numbersClick to Enlarge Image

A century ago, Simon Newcomb observed an unexpected pattern in the first digits of logarithm tables: The digit 1 is significantly more likely to occur than 2, 2 than 3, and so on. More than a half-century later, Frank Benford rediscovered the first-digit phenomenon and found that it applied to many tables of numerical data, including the stock market, census statistics and accounting figures. New mathematical insights establish the empirical law developed by Newcomb and Benford as part of modern probability theory, and recent applications include testing of mathematical models, design of computers and detection of fraud in accounting.


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