Thomas Fuller: The enslaved African math genius whose intellect shocked white people

Often called the “Virginia Calculator”, Thomas Fuller was born in 1710, somewhere between the “Slave Coast” of West Africa (present-day Liberia) and the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin). Also known as “Negro Tom” and the “Virginia Calculator“, was an enslaved African renowned for his mathematical abilities.

He was taken away from his native land during the scramble for slaves and sold as a slave. At the age of 14, Fuller was taken to Colonial America in 1724.

Fuller was illiterate as he could not read and write English but had a rare gift; the ability to give accurate and speedy calculation, which for so many years stunned the colonisers. He simply was able to solve complex math problems in his head.

Antislavery campaigners who had recognized his rare talent used him to drum home the point that blacks were not mentally inferior to whites.

Northern Virginia planters, Presley and Elizabeth Cox, also used Fuller’s talent in the management of their plantation farm, about four miles from Alexandria, Virginia.

So how did Fuller acquire this talent, especially in a period where slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write?

He said his skills come from experimental applications around the farm such as counting the hairs in a cow’s tail.

Complex computations related to astronomy are carried out by a computer but Fuller was amazingly able to do those computations in his head.

When Fuller was 70 years old, he met a businessman who had come with other associates from Pennsylvania just to know more about him.

They asked him some questions. Examples were: how many seconds were in a year and a half? how many seconds had a man lived who is 70 years, 17 days and 12 hours old?

When he correctly answered 47,304,000 and 2,210,500,800, respectively, in less than two minutes each time, one of the men raised an objection, saying his own calculations were much smaller.

Fuller quickly responded, “(Stop), Massa, you forget de leap year.”

After taking into consideration the leap year in their calculations, they agreed with Fuller. They later submitted Fuller’s computational abilities to the Abolitionist.

Fuller died on the Cox farm near Alexandria, Virginia in 1790. He was 80.

Despite Fuller’s perfect answers, it appeared to Hartshorne and Coates that his mental abilities must have once been greater. They wrote:

He was gray-headed, and exhibited several other marks of the weakness of old age. He had worked hard upon a farm during the whole of life but had never been intemperate in the use of spirituous liquors. He spoke with great respect of his mistress, and mentioned in a particular manner his obligations to her for refusing to sell him, which she had been tempted to by offers of large sums of money from several persons. One of the gentlemen, Mr. Coates, having remarked in his presence that it was a pity he had not an education equal to his genius, he said, “No, Massa, it is best I had no learning, for many learned men be great fools.”


Thomas Fuller (mental calculator): Wikipedia
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