From the Reading Room – Zerah Colburn


[[DeM] Fr [Colbourn] t.p.-6082]

William J. Reese from the University of Wisconsin-Madison was in the reading room a few months ago consulting a number of volumes regarding Zerah Colburn – a child prodigy in the field of arithmetic.  Most of the volumes were from the De Morgan collection. I asked him about ‘A Memoir of Zerah Colburn…’ in particular: ‘why are you reading this book and how does it relate to your wider research interests?’

I am writing a biography of Zerah Colburn, a child prodigy who was born in Cabot, Vermont, in the United States, in 1804.  At the age of six, this largely uneducated child exhibited remarkable talents in arithmetical computation and was subsequently exhibited in many towns and cities along the eastern seaboard. His Memoir, published in 1833, recounts his many experiences as a “calculating boy”: he could mentally compute figures faster than adult mathematicians could do on paper. He was one of the wonders and curiosities of the early nineteenth century.

[[DeM] Fr [Colbourn] port. facing t.p.-6083]

Colburn’s father brought his son to London in 1812, where he was exhibited and patronized by members of the Royal Society and other philanthropists. Barely literate at the time, he astonished audiences with his math skills. The Duke of Gloucester, for example, asked the child to multiply 21,734 x 543 and received a rapid reply: 11,801,562. Colburn was subsequently exhibited in Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, and Paris, before attending Westminster School between 1816 and 1819. After teaching in a school in Highgate, he worked as a calculator for Thomas Young, a polymath and well-known Secretary of the Board of Longitude. Colburn’s father contracted tuberculosis and died in London in 1824, and Zerah returned to Vermont, where he had a religious conversion and served as an itinerant Methodist minister for several years. Having mastered several languages while living in Paris and London, he became a professor of modern and ancient languages at an academy in Vermont. He died of tuberculosis in 1839 at the age of thirty-five.

The copy of Colburn’s Memoir in the Senate Library holds a special surprise. A lengthy prospectus is tucked in the back that was written in 1812, part of an attempt to raise funds for the education of the young prodigy, then eight years old. Francis Baily, a successful stock-broker and later a famous astronomer, wrote the prospectus on behalf of a group of philanthropic-minded gentlemen, scientists, and mathematicians; it provides an engaging description of Colburn’s life, remarkable skills, and potential. This may be the only copy of the prospectus in existence.

Blog post details