Thomas Fuller, an African sold into slavery in 1724 at the age of 14, was sometimes known as the “Virginia Calculator” for his extraordinary ability to solve complex math problems in his head.
Rumors circulated that he was a savant, since he could not read or write, but that was not uncommon among slaves at the time. Some believed that he may have gained his skills with math in his homeland in Africa.
His case was often cited by abolitionists of the time as proof that Blacks were in no way mentally inferior to whites. Born in Africa somewhere between present-day Liberia and Benin, Fuller was enslaved and shipped to America in 1724 at the age of 14. His masters owned 16 slaves, and appeared to value Fuller the most; he expressed gratitude for not being sold.
Stories of Fuller abilities abounded. His skill was even used as proof that enslaved Blacks were equal to whites in intelligence, which fueled some pro-abolitionist discussion.
Having heard of Fuller’s powers, some men sent for him. They asked him two questions which satisfied their curiosity.
First, when they asked him how many seconds there were in a year and a half, he answered in about two minutes, 47,304,000. Second, when they asked how many seconds a man has lived who is 70 years, 17 days and 12 hours old, Fuller answered in a minute and a half 2,210,500,800.
One of the men was working out the problems on paper, and informed Fuller that he was wrong, because the answer was much smaller. Fuller hastily replied, “‘Top, massa, you forget de leap year.” When the leap year was added in, the sums matched.
Despite Fuller’s perfect answers, it appeared 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. Fuller had worked hard upon a farm during the whole of life but had never been intemperate in the use of spirituous liquors.
Fuller 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.”
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