Thomas Fuller, "the Virginia Calculator"
FULLER THE MATHEMATICIAN
One of the standing arguments against the Negro was, that he lacked the faculty of solving mathematical problems. This charge was made without a disposition to allow him an opportunity to submit himself to a proper test. It was equivalent to putting out a man's eyes, and then asserting boldly that he cannot see; of manacling his ankles, and charging him with the inability to run. But notwithstanding all the prohibitions against instructing the Negro, and his far remove from intellectual stimulants, the subject to whom attention is now called had within his own untutored intellect the elements of a great mathematician.
Thomas Fuller, familiarly known as the Virginia Calculator, was a native of Africa. At the age of fourteen he was stolen, and sold into slavery in Virginia, where he found himself the property of a planter residing about four miles from Alexandria. He did not understand the art of reading or writing, but by a marvellous faculty was able to perform the most difficult calculations. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, Penn., in a letter addressed to a gentleman residing in Manchester, Eng., says that hearing of the phenomenal mathematical powers of "Negro Tom," he, in company with other gentlemen passing through Virginia, sent for him. One of the gentlemen asked him how many seconds a man of seventy years, some odd months, weeks, and days, had lived, he gave the exact number in a minute and a half. The gentleman took a pen, and after some figuring told Tom he must be mistaken, as the number was too great. "'Top, massa!" exclaimed Tom, "you hab left out de leap-years!" And sure enough, on including the leap-years in the calculation, the number given by Tom was correct.
"He was visited by William Hartshorn and Samuel Coates," says Mr. Needles, "of this city (Philadelphia), and gave correct answers to all their questions such as, How many seconds there are in a year and a half? In two minutes he answered 47,304,000. How many seconds in seventy years, seventeen days, twelve hours? In one minute and a half, 2,110,500,800."
That he was a prodigy, no one will question. He was the wonder of the age. The following appeared in several newspapers at the time of his death:
1 This account was drawn from The American Museum, Vol. V (Philadelphia: 1799); J.P. Brissot de Warville's Travels in the United States, Vol. I, p. 243; Needles's Historical Memoir of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, p 32; and the Columbian Centinal of Boston, December 29, 1790. It was largely reproduced in Edward A. Johnson's A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890 (Raleigh, North Carolina: 1890, pp. 17-19).
July 5th, 2007