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THE BOOK OF ZERAH COLBURN



EDITOR'S NOTE

Over the course of 2014 and 2015, The Net Advance of Physics plans to serialise a forgotten classic of Nineteenth Century American autobiography:

A Memoir of Zerah Colburn; Written by Himself (Containing an Account of the First Discovery of His Remarkable Powers ; His Travels in America and Residence in Europe ; A History of the Various Plans Devised for His Patronage ; His Return to This Country, and the Causes Which Led Him to His Present Profession ; with His PECULIAR METHODS OF CALCULATION) [Springfield, Mass.: Merriam, 1833]

together with some outside sources and a commentary. New chapters will be added at five-week intervals.

Colburn was a childhood computing prodigy who once defeated young William Rowan Hamilton in a mental-arithmetic contest. His most famous achievement was calculating without paper that the sixth Fermat Number (4,294,967,297) is divisible by 641 (and therefore obviously not prime). Although Colburn was no Hamilton in later life, he was a keen observer of his world, and before dying of tuberculosis at 34 recorded the events of his career (including an attempt to learn acting from one of the Kembles and a stint as a calculator for the Board of Longitude). An under-educated child-prodigy, an American in Europe, and a person with six toes on each foot, he had, to say the least, the outsider's perspective.


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