The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Part Two, Chapter One

SOURCE: A Memoir of Zerah Colburn; Written by Himself
[Springfield, Mass.: Merriam, 1833]

Colburn's words are in bold.


Introductory Remarks. --- Birth and early character of Zerah. --- Display of his talent. --- Leaves home with his father; goes to Montpelier, and other places in Vermont ; returns home, and starts for Boston. --- Offer made in Hanover. --- 'Squire B. --- Arrives in Boston ; the Indenture offered and rejected.

That men should wonder in contemplation of those things which exceed the common limits of experience and observation, is not strange. Such is the narrow compass of our faculties, even in their most perfect state, that it becomes difficult, while we see the outward effect produced, to trace the hidden energy which prompts and impels the inward cause. Should our astonishment excite within us sentiments of mingled awe, curiosity and reverence, corresponding with the greatness and elevation of the source whence the marvellous proceeds, wonder may profit us, and our excited inquiries yield us a lasting benefit.

It is not pretended, or thought, that the subject of this memoir stands first among the numerous exhibitions of His power who made the world, and has fashioned and endowed the human mind ; but it is believed that while much surprise has been felt on this subject, and many have indulged in unsatisfactory speculations in regard to his early endowment, a full development of his case may contribute somewhat to assist in leading the contemplative inquirer to a correct view of Him who is the giver of every good and every perfect gift, [James 1:17].

ZERAH COLBURN was born in the town of Cabot, county of Caledonia, and State of Vermont, on the first day of September, 1804. His father, Abia Colburn, removed into that town from Hartford, Vermont, about three months previous to his birth, and purchased a farm lying on the road from Cabot to Peacham.

Zerah was the sixth child ; and his parents being in straitened circumstances, with a large family, subjected to such difficulties and hardships as fell to the common lot of all new settlers at that period, there seemed to be no prospect that his name should ever be distinguished, or even known beyond the immediate circle of his neighbors and kinsmen. There was nothing remarkable in the endowments of his father or mother ; they were plain persons, not superior to others, and in regard to the early years of this their son, it may be proper to remark, that they considered him to be the most backward of any of their children.

Yet in common with his brothers and sisters, he shared in the cares and kindness of his parents, who after six years of toil, were beginning to discover the dawn of more prosperous days, and to hope the time had arrived when they might rejoice in the security and permanence of home ; and while pursuing the labors of industrious life, might also calculate for the future welfare of their children. It would therefore have been peculiarly painful, had they foreseen that an event was about to take place, which would in a moment rise up to destroy all those pleasing anticipations, blast every prospect of social happiness, and after years of absence, consign the husband and the father to a stranger's grave. Indeed, all the experience of human life emphatically shows, that ignorance of the future is more frequently our bliss than our bane.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
2 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32 34 36 38 40
3 3 6 9 12 15 18 21 24 27 30 33 36 39 42 45 48 51 54 57 60
4 4 8 12 16 20 24 28 32 36 40 44 48 52 56 60 64 68 72 76 80
5 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75 80 85 90 95 100
6 6 12 18 24 30 36 42 48 54 60 66 72 78 84 90 96 102 108 114 120
7 7 14 21 28 35 42 49 56 63 70 77 84 91 98 105 112 119 126 133 140
8 8 16 24 32 40 48 56 64 72 80 88 96 104 112 120 128 136 144 152 160
9 9 18 27 36 45 54 63 72 81 90 99 108 117 126 135 144 153 162 171 180
10 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120 130 140 150 160 170 180 190 200
11 11 22 33 44 55 66 77 88 99 110 121 132 143 154 165 176 187 198 209 220
12 12 24 36 48 60 72 84 96 108 120 132 144 156 168 180 192 204 216 228 240
13 13 26 39 52 65 78 91 104 117 130 143 156 169 182 195 208 221 234 247 260
14 14 28 42 56 70 84 98 112 126 140 154 168 182 196 210 224 238 252 266 280
15 15 30 45 60 75 90 105 120 135 150 165 180 195 210 225 240 255 270 285 300
16 16 32 48 64 80 96 112 128 144 160 176 192 208 224 240 256 272 288 304 320
17 17 34 51 68 85 102 119 136 153 170 187 204 221 238 255 272 289 306 323 340
18 18 36 54 72 90 108 126 144 162 180 198 216 234 252 270 288 306 324 342 360
19 19 38 57 76 95 114 133 152 171 190 209 228 247 266 285 304 323 342 361 380
20 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 160 180 200 220 240 260 280 300 320 340 360 380 400

Residing at a considerable distance from any school, it would be unreasonable to expect that education had done much for Zerah, while very young, in preparing him for that display of early strength, correctness and rapidity of mind in figures, which was never more remarkable to others, than unaccountable to himself.

Various fanciful and groundless statements have been circulated by ignorant persons in regard to the cause, which first led his mind to assume and exercise that power in calculation ; the author of these pages cannot acknowledge himself particularly indebted to such individuals; for it has been attended with some trouble, as well as disgust, to correct their relations.

The inquiry has often been made whether the gift were natural or supernatural ; his answer is that it was partly both ; understanding by this, not the putting forth of Divine energy in the entirely new creation of a faculty hitherto unknown to the mind, but the uncommon extension of a faculty already given, and common to all ; extension in a manner beyond the operations of Nature, as we see her exhibited, and therefore supernatural ; but natural, in as much as every one is, to a certain extent, able to compute by mental process alone.

Sometime in the beginning of August, 1810, when about one month under six years of age, being at home, while his father was employed at a joiner's workbench, Zerah was on the floor, playing in the chips ; suddenly he began to say to himself:

"Five times seven are thirty-five. Six times eight are forty-eight. &c."

His father's attention being 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 left his work, and turning to him began to examine him through 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 in 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 calling in, was informed of the singular occurrence. He, too, desired to be a witness of the fact, and soon it became generally known through 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 foreign Journals of literature, both in England and France, expressed their surprise at the uncommon incident.

Very soon after the first 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 his talent, and its application to purposes of general utility. Accordingly Mr. Colburn carried his son to Danville, to be present during the session of the Court. His child was very generally seen and questioned by the Judges, members of the bar, and others.

Vermont State House, 1808.

The Legislature of Vermont being about to convene at Montpelier, they were advised to visit that place, 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 him, but he answered them correctly ; as for instance --- which is the most, twice twenty-five, or twice five and twenty (that is, 2×25 or 3×5 + 20) ? Ans. twice twenty-five. Which is the most, six dozen dozen, or half a dozen dozen ((6 ×12) × 12 or 6×12) ? Ans. 6 dozen dozen.

It is a fact too that somebody asked how many black beans would make five white ones. Ans. 5, if you skin them. Thus it appeared that not only could he compute and combine numbers readily, but also he possessed a quickness of thought somewhat uncommon among children, in other things.

After a few days spent in Montpelier, they proceeded to Burlington. But as the thinly inhabited State of Vermont did not appear likely to furnish that efficient patronage which such an unusual case seemed to demand, Mr. Colburn was advised to bend his course toward the principal cities of the Union, in order to obtain that ample encouragement which would probably attend his undertaking. Accordingly they returned to Cabot, and after spending one night under the family roof, they departed to return no more. Arriving at Hanover, the friends of science associated with Dartmouth College desired to retain the boy and educate him.

Dr. Wheelock, President of the Institution, made a very generous offer, intending to take upon himself the care and expense of his studies ; and it may be no more than a reasonable supposition that if Mr. Colburn had acceded to such kind overtures, his wishes would have been eventually fulfilled. But he had certain objections to the offer, arising from the fact that already different patrons had not only offered their aid, but also used an influence to prevent him from subscribing to the terms proposed by others, residing in different parts of New England, by presenting to his inexperienced mind censorious strictures upon the motives of each other. However, before he fully declined, he proceeded to Boston, in the hope that he might become better prepared to decide between the various prospects presented to his view.

While at Hanover, a circumstance took place, which may deserve particular notice. A. B., Esq., residing in H., Vermont, was a man who for many years had been gradually forsaking the truths of revealed religion, until he was completely established in deistical principles. Business called him to Hanover at this time ; he was informed that Zerah was in the place, and his peculiar gift described.

On learning that the boy was only six years old, without opportunity or education, and yet able to solve such large questions by mental process alone, he was disposed to treat it as wholly untrue. Finding however that the statement was supported by facts which he could not controvert, he was much struck, and exceedingly disturbed in mind.

As a Deist, it had been his anxious labor to believe that miracles had never taken place ; that it was totally impossible for any thing to happen contrary to the established laws and visible course of nature. Now he found that something had happened contrary to the course of nature and far above it ; hence in his mind an irresistible inference arose that greater things, equally above nature, might take place --- even the miracles recorded in holy writ. He went home with a burdened spirit, passed a sleepless night in investigating the subject with all the acuteness of his vigorous mind, and at length found himself compelled by the force of conviction to renounce his Infidel foundation, and ever since has been established in the doctrines of Christianity. ( In 1827 the author received the above from Esquire B.)

On their way from Hanover to Boston, Mr. Colburn and his son received the most flattering marks of attention in the different towns through which they passed. They arrived in this city on the 25th of November ; here, as might be expected, the public were anxious to see for themselves if they had been correctly informed. Questions in multiplication of two or three places of figures, were answered with much greater rapidity than they could be solved on paper. Questions involving an application of this rule, as in Reduction [of fractions], Rule of Three, and Practice, seemed to be perfectly adapted to his mind. The Extraction of the Roots of exact Squares and Cubes was done with very little effort ; and what has been considered by the Mathematicians of Europe an operation for which no rule existed, viz. finding the factors of numbers, was performed by him, and in course of time, he was able to point out his method of obtaining them. Questions in Addition, Subtraction, and Division were done with less facility, on account of the more complicated and continued effort of the memory. In regard to the higher branches of Arithmetic, he would observe that he had no rules peculiar to himself; but if the common process was pointed out as laid down in the books, he could carry on this process very readily in his head.

That such calculations should be made by the power of mind alone, even in a person of mature age, and who had disciplined himself by opportunity and study, would be surprising, because far exceeding the common attainments of mankind ; --- that they should be made by a child six years old, unable to read, and ignorant of the name or properties of one figure traced on paper, without any previous effort to train him to such a task, will not diminish the surprise. The remembrance that this faculty was bestowed and exercised under such circumstances, while it necessarily prompts the possessor to speak of it as wonderful indeed, at the same time precludes all room for boasting, if he were thus disposed ; for it ever has been, and still is, as much a matter of astonishment to him as it can be to any other one ; God was its author, its object and aim perhaps are still unknown.

Soon after their arrival in Boston, the attention of the friends of science was fixed upon the propriety of educating the boy, in order to place him in a situation where he might be enabled to pursue the studies which seemed most adapted to his genius, and render it profitable to the world. After much deliberation, a number of the first gentlemen in that city made the following proposition to Mr. Colburn :

  1. To raise 5000 dollars by donation without any public exhibition of Zerah.
  2. To give the father 2500 dollars, while they were to retain the other half and the boy wholly under their control, and educate him.
To this offer Mr. Colburn was not willing to consent, but signified his approbation of their plan so far as to say, that they might raise the contemplated sum with the understanding that if they gave him one half, he would pay half the expenses of his son's studies, until he should have completed a collegiate course, after which he would commit him more directly to their care and superintendence.

Hon. Josiah Quincy, one of the gentlemen concerned, was then about to start for Washington ; he informed Mr. C. that if he was able to remain three days longer at home, he doubted not that the business might be arranged in a manner fully coinciding with his views ; as he was unable to tarry, he wrote a letter to the associated friends, requesting them to adopt the amendment suggested by the father. They, on receiving Mr. Quincy's communication, at first concluded to comply. The plan of public exhibition was now proposed, in order to raise the sum required. To this Mr. C. had many and strong objections; but these objections were at length overcome, by the high tone of interest and friendship used by his advisers, and after much preliminary discussion, the following paper was prepared and presented to him for signature :

This offer is thus particularly stated, because many persons at that period, and perhaps some at the present day, wonder that he did not remain to be educated in this country, where so much interest was excited in his favor.

To these terms, however, Mr. Colburn did not feel himself at liberty to accede. Simply to receive the patronage and sanction of their respectable names as a suitable equivalent for the desertion of family during a period long enough to travel through the States and collect so large a sum of money, and then for giving up one half that sum with the boy, during the most important season of youth, did not harmonize with his views of parental obligation. Concerning the motives which actuated them, the judgment of charity would be highly favorable --- it ought to be so. He did not refuse to sign this Indenture until after mature deliberation, --- he concluded that to subscribe to it would be much to his reproach and injury. This matter is thus fully described, because the rejection of the offer went abroad to the world as the wanton rejection of a very noble and friendly proposition. Individuals living at a distance from New England were disposed, when they afterwards saw the father, to accuse him in no very mild terms, of being ignorant or indifferent to the welfare of his son, as well as to the claims of gratitude towards those who interested themselves in his affairs ; and he was not always able to convince them of the real state of the case.