Some calculating prodigies have been gifted mathematicians. Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was born in 1777, was one of the world’s most remarkable mathematical geniuses. His brilliant aptitude for figures was evident from an early age. On his first day in an arithmetic class at school he provided the answers to a series of problem before the teacher had finished dictating them. He published his theory of numbers in 1801 and later became a foremost mathematician of his age.
Asked how many seconds he had lived when he was 70 years, 17 days, and 12 hours old, one man supplied the answer in a minute and half. When his questioners challenged his answer, he corrected them by pointing out that they had omitted to take into account leap years.
The man who demonstrated this astounding arithmetical ability was Thomas Fuller, the Virginia Calculator. Born in West Africa in 1710 and later shipped to America as a slave, he remained illiterate all his life.
There have been other lightning calculators. Some have not only lacked formal education but have been idiot savants, with little intellectual ability in other fields. Jedediah Buxton, another prodigy of the 18th century, could remember for a period of at least a month the calculations needed to solve a complex arithmetical problem.
Yet he remained illiterate, in spite of having a schoolteacher father, and seemed to have little intellectual inclination apart from his fascination for figures. On the one occasion that he attended a Shakespearean play, the only things that interested him were the number of words that each actor spoke and the number of entrances and exits each made.