Human Calculators

Zerah Colburn – Mental Calculator

Last Updated on June 20, 2020 by Darshan Modi

Zerah Colburn also known as “mental calculator” or “the calculating child” was a child math prodigy in the 19th century. In 1810, Zerah was able to recite the multiplication table and solve complicated mathematics questions rapidly in his head barely six weeks after he started school. This rare ability brought him to the spotlight in many major cities.

Zerah Colburn
Zerah Colburn

Zerah Colburn Superhuman Superpower

“The prodigy who fades is an old story. But the prodigy who sets a high mark when young and over again, for a full lifespan, is truly remarkable, and worth celebrating”. Colburn’s ability to solve complex mathematics problems for instance determining whether the sixth Fermat number (232 +1) is a prime number or not without the use of calculator was exceptional. His mathematical talent was publicly tested on many occasion – For example, he emerged has a clear winner in a competition with 12 years old Williams Rowan Hamilton (an Irish physicist). This competition and many others made him received a great deal of attention from men of worth and character in major cities in American.


Zerah Colburn was born on 1st September, 1804 in Cabot, Vermont, United States.
He died on March 2, 1839, in Norwich, Vermont, United States.

Early Life of Zerah Colburn

Zerah Colburn lived in Danville Hill Road, Vermont for the first six years of his life before his prodigious ability was discovered by his father, Abia Colburn. His father exhibited his ability and he gained a great deal of attention. Due to his rise in fame, his father took him to different cities in Vermont, New Hampshire and American at large. His talent was desired by many who offered him numerous scholarship to improve his education and become a great use to the world. For example Dr. Wheelock, President of the Dartmouth College offered him a scholarship to study at his college in Burlington.

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About Zerah Colburn

Zerah Colburn, a Vermonter by birth, has a prodigious ability for mental calculation, such as multiplying large numbers or factoring large numbers. His unique ability was discovered at age six by his father while he was reciting the multiplication table.
His father, who couldn’t believe his ears, put him into further tests and he noticed it took Zerah few seconds to solve complex mathematical problems such as the product of 13 and 97, product of 12,225 and 1,223 among others.

Capitalizing on his unique ability, the father took him to many major cities in American like New Hampshire, Boston etc. The president of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire -Dr. John Wheelock offered Zerah a scholarship for his education, but his father rejected the offer. Professors of Harvard and men of great honor took notice and appreciated his computation ability in Boston. In 1813, they sailed to England where he won a mental arithmetic competition against 8years old William Rowan Hamilton (who later became a physicist). His father took him for various exhibition in England, Scotland and Ireland.

In Paris, he was enrolled in the Lycee Napoleon, an upper level secondary school preparing pupils for the baccalaureate, but his father removed him almost immediately. After leaving Paris, they sailed back to England. On getting to England, the Earl of Bristol grew interest in him and placed him on scholarship in Westminster school. In 1819, Zerah was disqualified from the school as a result of his father’s failure to comply with the scholarship’s arrangement. After a while, his father suggested he become an actor which he failed woefully.

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Following the death of his father in December, 1822, he travelled back to American where he developed interest in languages. He worked as assistant teacher of an academy in Fairfield, New York. In March, he moved to Vermont where he was teaching French at Burlington and attending University of Vermont at the same time. He became a preacher at Methodist Church in the late 1825. He got married to Mary Hoyt in 1829 and they had 6 children together. In 1835, he settled in Norwich, Vermont and shortly became a professor of Languages in Dartmouth College, Hanover. In 1833, he wrote an autobiography-Memoirs of Zerah Colburn. In March 2, 1839, he died of tuberculosis and was buried in Northwich’s Old Meeting House Cemetery.

Genetic or Learned

Zerah’s ability can be considered genetic.

Names Known By

  • Mental calculator
  • The calculating Child

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