Zerah Colburn

Among  the intellectual prodigies which sometimes appear to excite the wonder and astonishment of mankind, Zerah Colburn was certainly one of the most remarkable. He was born at Cabot, Vermont, Sept. 1st, 1804. He was the sixth child of his parents, who were persons in low circumstances and of little education. He was regarded as the most backward of the children till he was about six years old, when he suddenly attracted attention by the display of his astonishing powers.

In August, 1810, when his father, Abia Colburn, was one day employed at a joiner's work-bench, Zerah was on the floor, playing among the chips; suddenly, he began to say to himself,—5 times 7 are 35—6 times 8 are 48, &c. His father's attention was immediately arrested by hearing this, so unexpected in a child so young, and who had hitherto possessed no advantages, except perhaps six weeks' attendance at the district school, that summer. He therefore left his work, and turning to the child, began to examine him in the multiplication table. He thought it possible that Zerah had learnt this from the other boys; but finding him perfect in the table, his attention was more deeply fixed, and he asked the product of 13×97, to which 1261 was instantly given as the answer. He now concluded that something unusual had actually taken place; indeed, he has often said he should not have been more surprised if some one had risen up out of the earth and stood erect before him.

It was not long before a neighbor rode up, and stopping at the house, was informed of the singular occurrence. He desired to be a witness of the fact. Zerah was called, and the result of the examination astonished every one present. The strange phenomenon was now rapidly spread throughout the town. Though many were inclined to doubt the correctness of the reports they heard, a personal examination attested their truth. Thus the story originated, which within the short space of a year found its way not only through the United States, but also reached Europe, and extorted expressions of wonder from foreign journals of literature and science in England, France and other countries.

Very soon after the discovery of his remarkable powers, many gentlemen, at that time possessing influence and public confidence throughout the state, being made acquainted with the circumstances, were desirous of having such a course adopted as might most directly lead to a full development of Zerah's talents, and their application to purposes of general utility. Accordingly, it was proposed that Mr. Colburn should carry his son to Danville, to be present during the session of the court. This was done, and the boy was very generally seen and questioned by the judges, members of the bar, and others.

The legislature of Vermont being about to convene at Montpelier, Mr. Colburn was advised to visit that place with his son, which they did in October. Here large numbers had an opportunity of witnessing his calculating powers, and the conclusion was general that such a thing had never been known before. Many questions, which were out of the common limits of arithmetic, were proposed, with a view to puzzle the child, but he answered them correctly; as, for instance,—which is the most, twice twenty-five, or twice five and twenty? Ans. Twice twenty-five. Which is the most, six dozen dozen, or half a dozen dozen? Ans. Six dozen dozen. Somebody asked him how many black beans would make five white ones. Ans. Five, if you skin them! Thus it appeared that the boy could not only compute and combine numbers readily, but that he also possessed a quickness of thought, somewhat uncommon among children, as to other things.

Soon after this, Mr. Colburn took his son to other large towns, and at last to Boston. Here the boy excited the most extraordinary sensation, and several gentlemen of the highest standing proposed to undertake his education. The terms, though very liberal, were not equal to the high-raised expectations of the father. The offer was therefore refused, and Mr. Colburn proceeded to the southern cities, exhibiting his son in public, his performances everywhere exciting the utmost wonder.

The author of these pages had an opportunity of seeing Zerah Colburn, at this period. He was a lively, active boy, of light complexion, his head being rather larger than that of boys generally at his age. He was then six years old, and had the manners common to children of his age. He was playful, even while performing his calculations. The quickness and precision with which he gave answers to arithmetical questions was amazing. Among those proposed to him at Boston, in the autumn of the year 1810, were the following:

What is the number of seconds in 2000 years? The answer, 63,072,000,000, was readily and accurately given. Another question was this: Allowing that a clock strikes 156 times in a day, how many times will it strike in 2000 years? The child promptly replied, 113,800,000 times.

What is the product of 12,225, multiplied by 1,223? Ans. 14,951,175. What is the square of 1,449? Ans. 2,099,601. Suppose I have a corn-field, in which are seven acres, having seventeen rows to each acre, sixty-four hills to each row, eight ears on a hill, and one hundred and fifty kernels on an ear; how many kernels in the corn-field? Ans. 9,139,200.

It will be recollected that the child who answered these questions was but six years old; that he had then had no instruction whatever in arithmetic; that he could neither read nor write, and that he performed these immense calculations by mental processes, wholly his own. His answers were usually given, and the calculations performed, while engaged in his sports, and the longest process seemed hardly to divert his mind from his amusements. His answers were often made almost as soon as the question was proposed, and in most cases before the process could be performed on paper.

His faculty for calculation seemed to increase, and as he became acquainted with arithmetical terms, his performances were still more remarkable. In June, 1811, he was asked the following question: If the distance between Concord and Boston be sixty-five miles, how many steps must I take in going this distance, supposing each step to be three feet? The answer, 114,400 steps, was given in ten seconds. He was asked how many days and hours had elapsed since the Christian era commenced. In twenty seconds he replied, 661,015 days, 15,864,360 hours.

Questions still more difficult were answered with similar promptitude. What sum multiplied by itself will produce 998,001? In less than four seconds he replied 999. How many hours in thirty-eight years, two months, and seven days? The answer, 334,488, was given in six seconds.

These extraordinary performances, witnessed by thousands of people, and among them persons of the highest standing, were soon reported in the papers, and attracted scarcely less attention in Europe than in this country. In England, particularly, great curiosity was expressed, and the plan of taking young Colburn thither was suggested. After some deliberation, this project was resolved upon; and in the spring of 1812, the father and son embarked at Boston for Liverpool, where they landed on the 11th of May. They proceeded to London, and taking rooms at Spring Gardens, commenced their exhibition.

Great numbers came to witness the performances of the boy, among whom Zerah, in his Life, enumerates the dukes of Gloucester and Cumberland, Lord Ashburton, Sir James Mackintosh, Sir Humphrey Davy, and the Princess Charlotte. The latter, attended by her tutor, the bishop of Salisbury, remained a full hour, and asked a number of questions. Among the rest was this: What is the square of 4001? The answer, 16,008,001, was immediately given. The duke of Cambridge asked the number of seconds in the time elapsed since the commencement of the Christian era, 1813 years, 7 months, 27 days. The answer was correctly given, 57,234,384,000.

An extraordinary interest was excited in London in respect to this remarkable youth, and schemes for giving him an education suited to his turn of mind were suggested. At a meeting of several distinguished gentlemen, to mature some plan of this sort, various questions were proposed to the child. He multiplied the number eight by itself, and each product by itself, till he had raised it to the sixteenth power, giving, as the almost inconceivable result, 281,474,976,710,656. He was asked the square root of 106,929, and before the number could be written down, he answered 327. He was then requested to name the cube root of 268,336,125, and with equal facility and promptness he replied, 645.

A likeness of the young prodigy, drawn by Hull and engraved by Meyer, was now published, and sold at a guinea each. Many were sold, and a considerable profit was realized. Another scheme was now started,—a memoir of the child,—and among the committee to superintend its publication, were Sir James Mackintosh, Sir Humphrey Davy and Basil Montague. Several hundred subscribers were obtained, but, though many paid in advance, for some reason or other the work was never published. Young Colburn and his father now made a tour to Ireland and Scotland. Among his visitors in Scotland, were Dugald Stewart, Professor Playfair, Doctor Brewster and Doctor Macknight. In March, 1814, they returned to London. By the advice of friends, they now proceeded to Paris, where they arrived in July, 1814.

Zerah was carefully examined before the French Institute. It is curious that on this occasion he was longer in giving his answers than ever before; probably owing to some embarrassment. His performances, however, excited here, as everywhere else, the greatest astonishment. La Place, the author of the Méchanique Celeste, was present. Guizot received the youth at his house, and expressed in his behalf the liveliest interest.

Such was the feeling excited, that a project was set on foot for giving Zerah an education at the Royal College of Henry IV. Nothing was wanting but the sanction of the king; but at the precise moment when measures were in progress to secure this object, Bonaparte came back from Elba, sweeping everything before him. The Bourbons fled, and the emperor was reinstated upon his throne. Application was now made to him in behalf of young Colburn; his assent was obtained, and on the 13th May, 1815, he entered the seminary, which was now restored to its original title, the Lyceum Napoleon.

Mr. Colburn had, in England, Scotland and Paris, obtained a large number of subscribers to the memoir. Having placed his son in the Lyceum, he went to London to attend to the publication of the work. Here he met with bitter disappointment. His agent, who had been authorized to collect the money, had received about one third of the whole subscriptions, and appropriated the money to his own use. As he was poor, the whole sum was irretrievably lost. At the same time, Mr. Colburn found that his former friends were greatly chagrined to find that the French government, more liberal than themselves, had made provision for his son. Under this influence, the project of the memoir was abandoned, and a new scheme was proposed, the object of which was to raise two hundred pounds a year for six years, to defray the expenses of the boy's education.

While Mr. Colburn was pursuing this scheme, Zerah was at the Lyceum at Paris, which now became the theatre of the most interesting events. The battle of Waterloo was fought, Napoleon fled, and the French army retreated toward the capital. To this point, the hostile armies were now directing their march, and the citizens of Paris were roused for its defence. Every effort was made to strengthen the walls and throw up entrenchments. The scholars at the Lyceum received permission to join in this work, and with enthusiastic ardor, heightened by their sympathy for Napoleon, they went to their tasks, crying, "Vive l'Empereur." Our little mathematician was among the number, and if he could have multiplied forts as easily as he managed figures, Paris would, doubtless, have been saved. But the fortune of war decided otherwise. Paris was overwhelmed, Napoleon dethroned, and Louis XVIII. restored.

Zerah Colburn might have continued at the Lyceum, but his foolish father, having embraced the London scheme, proceeded to Paris, and carried him thence again to London, where they arrived February 7, 1816.

The scheme which had excited Mr. Colburn's hopes, was, however, a mere illusion. His friends were worn out with his importunities, and, doubtless, disgusted with his fickleness. They were dissatisfied by discovering that while he wished to obtain a provision for his son, he desired also that some emolument, sufficient for his own wants, should come to himself. The result was, that both the father and son were reduced to a state of poverty. While attempting, by means scarcely better than beggary, to obtain transient support, they chanced to call upon the Earl of Bristol, who received them kindly, and expressed great interest in the youthful calculator. He invited them to his country residence at Putney, whither they went, and spent several days. The result of this fortunate acquaintance was, that the Earl made a provision of six hundred and twenty dollars a year for young Colburn's education at Westminster school, where he was regularly entered on the 19th September. At this period, he was a few days over twelve years old.

It now seemed that better fortunes had dawned upon this gifted, but still unfortunate boy; but these were soon clouded by disappointment. The custom of fagging existed in this school, as in all the higher seminaries of England. By this system, the boys of the under classes were required to be waiters and servants of those in the upper classes. Zerah was subjected to this arrangement, and a youth in the upper school was pitched upon for his master. This was the son of a baronet, Sir John L. Kaye.

Soon after he had been initiated into these menial duties, one of the upper scholars called upon him to perform some servile task. This he accomplished, but not to the satisfaction of his employer. He therefore complained to young Kaye, his proper master, whose wrath being greatly excited, he fell upon poor Zerah, twisted his arm nearly out of joint, and, placing him in a helpless situation, beat his shoulder black and blue. Zerah went to his father, who immediately proceeded to Mr. Knox, the usher. The latter expressed regret for the abuse Zerah had received, but when the father claimed exemption for his son from the custom of fagging, the usher positively refused compliance. Mr. Colburn enjoined it upon his son by no means to submit to this system of drudgery again, and departed. In the evening, he was called upon to clean a pair of shoes. This he refused; whereupon, a number of the larger boys, who had gathered around him, first threatened, and then beat him without mercy, until at last he complied. All this occurred under the same roof where the usher then was. In the morning, the father came, and appealing to him, was treated with contempt. As he was going across the yard to see Dr. Page, the head master, the boys yelled at him from their windows, calling him Yankee; doubtless, deeming it the most opprobrious of epithets. The final result of this matter was, that Zerah was exempted from the custom of fagging, though no relaxation of the custom, generally, was made in the school.

Zerah continued at Westminster, spending his vacations with the Reverend Mr. Bullen, Lord Bristol's chaplain, at the village of Danton. His father, in the mean time, picked up the means of subsistence, partly by boarding his son and a few other scholars, and partly by contributions. At length, the Earl, who was now in Germany, made an arrangement for the removal of Zerah from the Westminster school to the exclusive charge of Mr. Bullen. Mr. Colburn objected to this, and wrote accordingly to Lord Bristol. The latter persisted in his plan, and in order to reconcile the father to it, offered him fifty pounds a year for his own personal use. With stubbornness, amounting to infatuation, he rejected the generous offer, and withdrew his son from the Westminster school, and the patronage of his noble friend.

Young Colburn had spent two years and nine months at the Westminster seminary, where his progress in the acquisition of languages and other studies was extremely rapid. Euclid's Elements of Geometry were mastered with ease; but it is a curious fact that while the boy was fascinated with arithmetical calculations, as he advanced into the abstruser portions of mathematics, his taste revolted from a pursuit that was dry and repulsive.

Again the father and son were afloat in the sea of London. What was to be done now? The education of his son was, doubtless, an object to Mr. Colburn; but, with blind selfishness, he seems to have thought more of turning him to account as a means of raising money. With this view he proposed that he should go upon the stage; no doubt supposing that the youth's notoriety would render him available in this capacity. He was put in training, under the care of Charles Kemble. After four months' tuition, he appeared at Margate in the character of Norval. His reception was tolerably flattering, but he obtained no compensation. Mr. Colburn now determined to exhibit his son in his new profession, in Scotland and Ireland; but being almost entirely destitute of money, they were obliged to take a steerage passage in a vessel, and subsist upon hard fare. They arrived at Edinburgh, but received no encouragement in the theatrical line. Mr. Colburn called upon his former friends, and they contributed to his immediate relief. They now proceeded by canal-boat to Greenock, and thence in a vessel to Belfast. Here they found a strolling company of players, with whom an arrangement was made for Zerah's appearance at Londonderry, whither the party were about to proceed; to that place father and son journeyed on foot. Here the latter performed in some inferior characters, and soon returned with the band to Belfast. At this place he played the part of Richard the Third—but alas! even this master-stroke of policy failed. The father and son pushed on to Dublin, but they could get no engagement at the theatre.

The inventive resources of Abia Colburn were not yet exhausted. Zerah must now turn author—and the future Methodist preacher must write a play! The subject chosen was that of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. The drama was composed—and we believe it was actually performed. But, alas! says Zerah, in his honest, modest book—"it never had any merit or any success."

After an absence of two months, the wanderers returned to London. A long period of inaction follows, during which Zerah wrote plays, which were never printed or performed, and the father picked up a precarious living by levying contributions upon his former friends. These were at last worn out with his importunities, and finally, one of the best of them deliberately turned Zerah out of doors, when he came upon some errand from his father.

Deprived of all other means save that of begging, which was now a poor resource, the youth obtained employment in October, 1821, as an usher in a school, and soon after established one on his own account. This afforded so poor a support, that still another effort was made to raise funds, ostensibly to provide for his permanent relief. To obtain subscribers to this proposal, Zerah went to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast. At the former place, Mr. Combe took a cast of his head, seeking thereby to throw light upon his phrenological theories. He returned to London, with little success, and resumed his school.

The health of his father now began to give way. Unhappily, he had, from the first discovery of his son's extraordinary gifts, looked upon them with mercenary feelings—as a source of revenue. It is true he had a father's love for his child—and in this respect, Zerah, in the simple memoir of his own life, does his parent more than justice; but still, it was this short-sighted selfishness which made him convert his child's endowments into a curse to him, to his friends, and Zerah himself. His expectations had been lifted to such a pitch, that nothing could satisfy them. The most generous offers fell short of what he felt to be his due; liberality was turned, in his mind, to parsimony—and even friends were regarded as little short of enemies. His sanguine temper led him constantly to indulge high hopes, which were as constantly doomed to disappointment. Such a struggle could not always last. His mind was torn with thoughts of his home and family neglected for twelve years; of his life wasted; his prospects defeated; of fond dreams, ending at last in failure, shame and poverty. He failed gradually, and on the 14th February, 1824, he died. A few days after, the body was consigned to the tomb, and Zerah, in his life, notices the fact that John Dunn Hunter was among the mourners. We mention this, as coinciding with the account we have given in this volume of that extraordinary character.

Zerah continued in London for a few months, in the employment of Mr. Young, in making astronomical calculations. He had, however, a desire, enforced by his father's death-bed injunctions, to return to his country, and his mother, at Cabot. Again aided by his friend, Lord Bristol, he was provided with necessary means, and in June, 1824, he arrived at New York. On the third of July he approached his mother's door. He found there an elderly woman, and being uncertain who it was, he asked if she could tell him where the widow Colburn lived. "I am she," was the reply.

The mother of Zerah Colburn was a remarkable woman. During the long absence of her husband, with a family of eight children, and almost entirely destitute of property, she had sustained the burthen with indomitable energy. She wrought with her own hands, in house and field; bargained away the little farm for a better; and, as her son says, "by a course of persevering industry, hard fare, and trials such as few women are accustomed to, she has hitherto succeeded in supporting herself, besides doing a good deal for her children."

Zerah Colburn was now unable to offer much aid to his mother or the family. He found employment for a time as a teacher; but his mind at last was impressed with religious views, and after some vicissitudes of life, and many fluctuations of feeling, he finally adopted the Methodist faith, and became a humble but sincere preacher of that sect. With pious, patient assiduity he continued in this career for a number of years. He published a modest memoir of his life and adventures, from which we have gathered the greater part of our account,—and at last became professor of the Greek, Latin, French and Spanish languages, as well as of classical literature, in the "Vermont University," at Norwich. At this place he died, March 2d, 1840, in the thirty-eighth year of his age.

Whoever has carefully attended to the facts stated in the early part of this notice, will be prepared to admit that Zerah Colburn was one of the most astonishing intellectual prodigies that has ever appeared. Totally uninstructed in figures, at the age of six years, he was able to perform mental operations which no man living, by all the training of art, is able to accomplish. It had been stated by scientific men, that no rule existed for finding the factors of numbers; yet this child discovered a rule by which he ascertained results of this kind, accessible only to skilful arithmeticians. In the London prospectus, the following facts, in relation to this point, are stated, which cannot fail to excite astonishment.

At one of his exhibitions, among various questions, it was proposed that he should give the factors of 171,395—and he named the following as the only ones: 5×34279; 7×22485; 59×2905; 83×2065; 35×4897; 295×581; 413×415. He was then asked to give the factors of 36,083; but he immediately replied that it had none, which is the fact, it being a prime number. "It had been asserted and maintained by the French mathematicians that 4294967297, was a prime number; but the celebrated Euler detected the error by discovering that it was equal to 641×6,700,417. The same number was proposed to this child, who found out the factors by the mere operation of his mind."

Great pains were taken to discover the processes by which this boy performed his operations. For a long time he was too ignorant of terms, and too little accustomed to watch the operations of his mind, to do this. He said to a lady, in Boston, who sought to make him disclose his mode of calculation, "I cannot tell you how I do these things. God gave me the power." At a subsequent time, however, while at the house of Mr. Francis Bailey, in London, upon some remark being made, the boy said suddenly, and without being asked—"I will tell you how I extract roots." He then proceeded to tell his operations. This is detailed in Zerah's book; but it in no degree abates our wonder. The rule does not greatly facilitate the operation; it still demands an effort of mind utterly beyond the capacity of most intellects; and after all, the very rule itself was the invention of a child.

As he did not at first know the meaning of the word factor, when desired to find the factors of a particular number, the question was put in this form—"What two numbers multiplied together will produce such a number?" His rule for solving such problems was sought for with much curiosity. At last this was discovered. While in Edinburgh, in 1813, he being then nine years old, he waked up one night, and said suddenly to his father—"I can tell you how I find the factors!" His father rose, obtained a light, and wrote down the rule, at Zerah's dictation.

It appears that when he came to maturity, these faculties did not improve; and after a time he was even less expert in arithmetical calculations than when he was ten years old. It is probable, his whole mind was weakened, rather than strengthened, by the peculiar circumstances of his life. As a preacher, he was in no way distinguished. He says this in his book, with simple honesty; and seems at a loss to understand the design of Providence in bestowing upon him so stupendous a gift, which, so far as he was able to discover, had produced no adequate results.

He suggests, indeed, a single instance, in which an atheist in Vermont, who witnessed his performances in childhood, was induced to reflect upon the almost miraculous powers of the mind, and led to the conclusion that it must have an intelligent author. He saw that which was as hard to believe, as much beyond the routine of experience, as any miracle—and hence fairly concluded that miracles could be true. By this course of reflection he was induced to reject his infidelity, and afterwards became a sincere Christian.

This, we doubt not, was one of the designs of Providence, in the bestowment of Zerah Colburn's wonderful gifts. But their use should not be confined to an individual case. If there is argument for God in a flower, how much more in a child of Zerah Colburn's endowments? What infidelity can withstand such an instance, and still say, there is no God? And farther, let us reflect upon the noble powers of the mind, and rejoice, yet with fear and trembling, that we are possessors of an inheritance, which, at God's bidding, is capable of such mighty expansion.

The history of Zerah Colburn may teach us one thing more—that the gifts of genius are not always sources of happiness to the possessor; that mental affluence, like worldly riches, often brings sorrow, rather than peace to the possessor; and that moderate natural gifts, well cultivated, are generally the most useful in society, and most conducive to the happiness of the possessor.

Zerah Colburn, at eight years of age.