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

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

Colburn's words are in bold.

St. Paul's by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.


Mr. Colburn embarks for England ; arrives in London ; his son is exhibited there. --- William Wilberforce. --- Duke of Cambridge. --- Likeness of the boy published by subscription. --- A Memoir contemplated. --- They leave London to visit Ireland and Scotland.

The faculty possessed by Zerah Colburn was of so remarkable a character, that it might not have appeared singular, if a little time must necessarily elapse, in order to give his patrons an opportunity of concerting measures to prepare him for being useful to himself and the public ; but a year and a half had now elapsed, without the occurrence of any thing that seemed likely to promote this object. The step which his father was about to take, was one that maintained the interest felt by his friends ; and they looked forward to his contemplated voyage to England, as the probable means of ultimate success.

Mr. Colburn wrote to his wife in December, 1811, while at Washington, giving her the first decided intimation that such a voyage was intended, and requesting her to make such a disposition of her children and the farm, that she might be able to accompany her husband over the Atlantic, if he should still think it best. To this, however, her feelings and judgment were irresistibly opposed. She undoubtedly believed that such a certainty of support as he might have found on his farm, was better than to follow in the uncertain pursuit of patronage, depending on the caprice or liberality of the great ; and as a mother, she could not reconcile herself to the idea of leaving her children, the oldest being only fourteen years of age, without either parent to watch over them.

Her course was perfectly correct. She has said she thought that if she had met Mr. C. at Boston, on the 20th of February, according to his request, by insisting on his stay, she might have prevailed on him to abandon his project and return to his former labors. Happy if she had done it --- much better for her children --- even full as well for Zerah, as the result of his wanderings in other lands, and his return, fatherless, to his native home, seemed to show.

Mr. Colburn had the fullest confidence, not only in the rectitude of his motives, but also in the propriety of his course ; and moreover, had an invincible belief that his journey would be prosperous, and his return to this country safe and happy. Even now, when taking a retrospect of past life, the writer may be permitted to express his regret, either that his mysterious faculty was bestowed, or that so little success attended the wishes and efforts of his friends ; and it is now, that after possessing the talent twenty-two years, in view of the unhappy circumstances connected with it from first to last, he feels unable to account for its donation, unaware of its object, and the profitable effects to which it might have been directed. It is in the abandonment of home and country, and the trials which, after two or three years of seeming prosperity, followed him to the close of life, that he is led to believe his father paid dearly for the singular talent conferred on his son.

Arriving in Boston early in the spring of 1812, and finding that the gentlemen concerned in the Indenture were indisposed to offer terms more advantageous ; that the prejudices excited by his rejection of the proposed Articles still existed --- Mr. Colburn and his son embarked on the third day of April for Liverpool, in the "New Galen." After a passage of thirty-eight days, characterized by the usual circumstances of a sea voyage, they landed at Liverpool, May 11th. On the twelfth, they proceeded to London, a distance of two hundred and twelve miles.

The London-Faringdon Coach by James Pollard. (Yale Center for British Art.)

Even the traveling by public conveyance savors of the aristocratic spirit of the nation ; while in our country, rich and poor are equally privileged in a stage coach, in theirs, the inside seats accommodate four passengers, who are able to pay for the accommodation, and on the outside two seats are erected before, and two behind the body of the carriage, to carry twelve travelers of a poorer class.

London is, probably more than any other city on the globe, a world in miniature. Through all its mighty extent, while scarcely one trace of vegetable life is discovered, except the flower-pots adorning the windows of some, and the occasional relief afforded by the enclosed area in the public squares, covered with grass and trees, are assembled, if not all the numbers, yet all the varieties of the human species. Here have we seen Frenchmen, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Russians, Prussians, and Poles : the feet that first essayed to walk beneath the scorching suns of Africa, in Persia, and Turkey, have roamed to this vast centre of the nations. The native of Ceylon and of China have here appeared in the accustomed garb of their countries. Here, too, if not of Pagan countries, yet all the extensive variety of creeds recognized within the limits of Christendom, are venerated and supported by their respective adherents. The amplest wealth, the most abject poverty that earthly creatures know ; and were it not that goodness and virtue, still unfettered and free, spread over the earth, and every where invite to pursue and to enjoy, we had said the best and the worst of men, --- may here be found. Here will every virtuous and noble, religious and philanthropic object, meet with supporters : here will every species of sin, of vice and crime, find a hot-bed where it may luxuriantly grow ; here every pleasure, whether intellectual, moral, or sensual, may be pursued ; and every avocation is followed to obtain a support in life.

London as described on maps consists of three parts ; London proper, the ancient chartered city, and Westminster, which are separated from the borough of Southwark by the river Thames.

Its form is neither square nor circular ; this could not be expected, in a city erected, not according to one plan, but according to the caprice or convenience of individuals, having different views and interests to pursue. The buildings are principally of brick ; --- many of stone. While there is some attention paid to uniformity in the height, there is less in the fashion and style of them. The houses of the rich are generally spacious and noble, except some which have stood one or two centuries. The streets are similarly constructed ; the modern ones are wide and airy, while the more ancient are sometimes narrow and inconvenient.

There is nothing striking in the royal palaces, --- antiquated structures, exhibiting the marks of the ravages of time, --- except the residence of the late king, which is an elegant mansion, built of stone.

Churches, chapels, meeting-houses and synagogues, are many. Westminster Abbey, an ancient edifice in the Gothic style of architecture, remains a noble monument of the liberality and devotion (misguided perhaps) of other days. Formerly a monastery was connected with it ; in the surrounding cloisters the pavement is principally composed of large tombstones, the inscriptions on many illegible by time and the violence done to their memorials by the feet of passengers ; in one side, close to the wall, slumber the ashes of one whose death is recorded as having occurred in the tenth century. The sides of the cloisters as well as of the Abbey walls, are well filled with tablets, monuments, and inscriptions in memory of the departed rich, and great, and good. The ill-fated victim of Arnold's treachery, André, there lives in marble. Poets, philosophers, patriots, and sages, the gallant on land and on the ocean, there sleep beneath the records of their fame. According to the established ritual, divine worship is celebrated every day in one wing of the building. As public property, all repairs necessary to preserve the building in every espect according to antiquity of style, are made at the public expense.

St. Paul's church, within the limits of London proper, about four miles from the Abbey, occupies a situation favorable for prospect. Its height is three hundred and fifty feet, erected in a noble style of architecture. Above the dome is a tower surmounted by a smaller dome, above which is a spherical chamber, and this last is crowned by a cross, which appears to a person in the street below, to be eighteen or twenty-four inches in dimensions, but which is actually commodious to entertain six or eight persons. The whispering gallery round the base of the great dome on the interior, conveys the least whisper from one to any other part of its circumference ; beneath are hung numerous flags taken in the various conflicts of England with other nations.

The Monument, erected near the old London Bridge, is a column two hundred feet in height. A circular staircase on the inside leads to the top, from which some have committed suicide, by taking one fatal leap ; it was designed to commemorate the great fire, which followed the plague of 1661. It is badly situated, being completely surrounded with houses, and an object of alarm, as its rocking is visible in a windy day ; but no architect has been found sufficiently enterprising to undertake its removal.

The river Thames is crossed by six bridges, four of stone, and two of cast iron. This stream furnishes the inhabitants with water, which is conveyed to the different parts of the city through the powerful agency of Works established at London Bridge, by means of pipes laid under the streets. As the river receives all the filth of the city, its water could not be pleasant or salubrious at all, were it not for the tides. It is navigable for ships of any burthen up as far as London Bridge, above which coal-barges and pleasure-boats are continually passing.

The Tower occupies a large tract of land, surrounded as the ancient castles, by a wide and deep moat ; within its compass are buildings enough to form a large village ; dwelling houses for the officers of the establishment ; barracks for soldiers ; a chapel ; prisons for receiving such persons as are guilty of crimes against the state ; the royal collection of wild beasts, besides many relics of the pride, valor, and cruelty of the various monarchs that have filled the English throne.

The celebrated Tunnel under the bed of the river Thames was not commenced previous to the writer's leaving London. Hence, he in common with his countrymen must depend on the public papers for a description of it. The failure, or at least interruption of the great project to obtain a subterranean passage beneath such a body of water, might bring to mind the visionary theories of the late Captain Symmes to get inside of the earth, and become acquainted with the country, soil, seasons, climate, inhabitants, &c. of the interior.

[Captain John Symmes, a veteran of the American Revolution, was famous in the 1810s and '20s for his insistence that the Earth is hollow and contains concentric additional planets like nesting dolls. This theory, originally proposed by Edmond Halley in 1692, was taken seriously by many people; Americans in particular saw the inner worlds as the next frontier!]

In this city Mr. Colburn and his son arrived about the middle of May, 1812. Presenting his letters of recommendation, he found that already the report of his son's faculty had preceded his coming, and that many desirous of seeing him, were disposed to use an influence in his favor. Having conferred with many of the friends of science, it was judged best in order that the public might be better prepared to patronise him, that Zerah should be exhibited. Accordingly rooms were engaged in Spring Gardens, where, except during six months spent in Ireland and Scotland, they remained two years.

The curiosity of the English people induced many to call and see for themselves, whether they had been rightly informed, or whether it was by juggling and trickery that he answered questions. Among the number were the Dukes of Gloucester, Cumberland, and St. Albans ; The Marquis of Lansdowne, The Earls of Aberdeen, Bristol, Dartmouth, Pomfret, Spencer, Stanhope, Lord Althorp, Lord Ashburton, Lord Burghersh, Lord Holland, The Countess of Darnley, Bishop of Oxford, Bishop of St. David's, Sir James Mackintosh, Sir Humphrey Davy, and many others distinguished for their rank, or attainments in science.

Princess Charlotte by George Daw. (Alexander Palace Museum.)

The Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, and afterwards married to Leopold, the present King of Belgium, called in company with her tutor, the Bishop of Salisbury, and tarried about an hour; during which interview she evinced a mind far superior to the common endowments of her sex, as if destined at some future day to sit upon the throne of those realms, with honor to herself and glory to her people. The only question remembered that she proposed was, to give the square of 4001. Ans. 16,008,001.

General Ross, who was slain among the victims to American liberty after the burning of Washington, called a few days before he departed on his ill-fated mission. John Bonnycastle was among those who took a particular interest in the arithmetical faculty possessed by the boy.

Sir William Congreve, well known for his inventions in engineering, invited Mr. Colburn to bring his son to his house, where were assembled a number of gentlemen at dinner. The General spoke with respect of Robert Fulton, whom he said he had formerly known.

William Wilberforce by Karl Anton Hickel. (Hull Museum.)

That celebrated statesman and friend of the rights of man, William Wilberforce, was among the first whom the author was taken to visit, on his arrival in London. This gentleman did not appear to be so much interested in his calculating powers as some, who had not their minds laboring with projects as vast and beneficial to mankind as himself, but he treated him kindly, and gave him some books, with a view to his improvement in learning and correct principles. It was on a second visit that the author had an opportunity of seeing a model of a life-boat, exhibited by Capt. Manley, of the Navy. The last time that he saw Mr. Wilberforce, was in 1822, at which time the marks of age and infirmity were beginning to appear. When he reached the house, he was detained for a short time on account of the devotional exercises of the family, after which he was introduced, and spent an hour or two in a very agreeable manner. Indeed it is a privilege to see a good man, but when goodness is adorned with intellectual superiority, and the beholder feels that he gazes upon one whose well directed efforts have successfully availed to benefit a suffering race, and enhance the pure glory of his country, it becomes more exalted pleasure to gaze.

In addition to the public exhibition of the boy, he was frequently invited to call upon the great at their houses. At one time he received an invitation to call at the duke of York's residence. As the duke was gone away on business, he did not see his royal Highness, but the duchess, with a large party of guests, spent considerable time in questioning him.

The Female Orphan Asylum is a benevolent institution under the particular patronage of the duke of Cambridge, for the support of female orphans, their instruction and establishment in morals and religion. The chaplain, Rev. William Agutter, requested the boy to attend public worship there one Sunday. The Duke was there, and in the course of the day, favoured him with an interview. Among other questions, the Duke 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.

Extracted [by Colburn] from a Prospectus printed in London, 1813:

At a meeting of his friends which was held for the purpose of concerting the best method of promoting the interest of the child by an education suited to his turn of mind, he undertook and succeeded in raising the number 8 to the sixteenth power, and gave the answer correctly in the last result, viz. 281,474,976,710,656. He was then tried as to other numbers, consisting of one figure, all of which he raised as high as the tenth power, with so much facility and dispatch that the person appointed to take down the results was obliged to enjoin him not to be too rapid. With respect to numbers consisting of two figures, he would raise some of them to the sixth, seventh, and eighth power, but not always with equal facility ; for the larger the products became, the more difficult he found it to proceed. He was asked the square root of 106,929, and before the number could be written down he immediately answered 327. He was then requested to name the cube root of 268,336,125, and with equal facility and promptness he replied 645.

Various other questions of a similar nature respecting the roots and powers of very high numbers, were proposed by several of the gentlemen present, to all of which satisfactory answers were given. One of the party requested him to name the factors which produced the number 247,483, which he did by mentioning 941 and 263, which indeed are the only two factors that will produce it.

Another of them proposed 171,395, and he named the following factors as the onlv ones, viz :

He was then asked to give the factors of 36,083, but he immediately replied that it had none ; which in fact was the case, as 36,083 is a prime number ...

It had been asserted and maintained by the French mathematicians that 4294967297, that is, one more than two to the thirty-second power, was a prime nvimber ; 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.

On another occasion, he was requested to give the square of 999,999 ; he said he could not do this, but he accomplished it by multiplying 37037 by itself, and that product twice by 27. (Ans. 999,998,000,001). He then said he could multiply that by 49 which he did : Ans. 48,999,902, 000,049. He again undertook to multiply this number by 49 : Ans. 2,400,995,198,002,401. And lastly he multiplied this great sum by 25, giving as the final product, 60,024,879,950,060,025.

[This seems peculiar. The square of 999,999, or a million less one, is something many non-prodigies could probably calculate. Was he insulted by the problem, or does it reflect some aspect of his method?]

Various efforts were made by the friends of the boy to elicit a disclosure of the methods by which he performed his calculations, but for nearly three years he was unable to satisfy their inquiries. There was, through practice, an increase in his power of computation ; when first beginning, he went no farther in multiplying than three places of figures ; it afterwards became a common thing with him to mutiply four places by four ; in some instances five figures by five have been given.

Some persons had very strange ideas as to the manner in which he reckoned ; on one occasion, a gentleman came in, and after putting some questions, began to express his belief that the boy was assisted by some note or hint furnished to him by some one concealed in the room ; he doubted so far as actually to request leave to carry him out into the street at a distance from the house, away from his father, to ascertain whether the same readiness of reply would be evinced.

At another time a man came in while the room was full of company, having something wrapped up in a handkerchief under his arm, and taking the father aside, requested leave to propose as his question, "What book he had in his handkerchief ?" He manifested considerable dissatisfaction because the question was not allowed.

The inquiry has often been made whether Mr. Colburn did not receive a handsome property from the exhibition of his son. It is true that many persons called upon him ; but when the expenses of such a course of life are taken into consideration, it will appear that the price of admission, one shilling sterling, or twenty two cents of our money, could not suffice to lay up a large fund. The weekly rent was over nine dollars for the rooms they occupied ; this, besides the necessary expense of fuel, provision, and clothes, as well as the payment of printers' bills, in a place like London, would evidently require continual exhibition in order to insure continual support.

Unless in a very few instances, the first and wealthiest people who called on him gave no more than the admission fee. The presents usually made were mostly in toys or books for Zerah, of which he had a great many. While in London Mr. Colburn was not exempted from occasional censure on account of the Boston offer. On one occasion, some gentlemen who had called, began to upbraid him for the course he had taken in that affair. He defended himself as well as he could, appealing to the Indenture itself ; at length a bystander began to take his part, and fully vindicated the course he took therein. On going away he left his name --- it was the Earl of Aberdeen.

During the time of Zerah's exhibition, his education was necessarily neglected. Since he started from Cabot, he had learned to read, and in London, to write ; but this was all. As many have expressed a curiosity in regard to his facility of acquiring knowledge from books, it may be proper to remark that when a boy, he delighted in reading, as a pastime. That in the studies to which he subsequently gave his attention, he manifested no uncommon skill or quickness, though his progress was always respectable. The acquirement of a language was easy and pleasant; Arithmetic, (in the books,) entertaining; Geometry, plain but dull.

After the lapse of a few months spent in exhibition and visiting, some of his friends recommended as a lucrative project, the publication of a likeness of Zerah. Accordingly a drawing taken by Thomas Hull was engraved by Meyer, and a large number of copies were sold at one guinea each. Strange as it may appear, this was the only undertaking in which more than one was concerned, that answered its object and succeeded.

The success of this subscription probably suggested another, viz. the publication of a memoir of the boy --- to contain an account of his birth ; his gift of calculation --- travels, and a long list of questions answered by him. Tbe committee who undertook the management of this business consisted of Sir James Mackintosh, Sir Humphrey Davy, Basil Montagu, and Kirkman Finlay, Esquires. The price originally set at two guineas and a half, was afterwards reduced to one guinea and a half; and under this arrangement about four hundred names were obtained.

Basil Montagu, Esq. whose name is mentioned above, was a barrister of very respectable standing in his profession. He was then rapidly rising in his professional career ; but the time had been when he knew the faithlessness of Fortune and the pinching of want. He once told Mr. C. that he had seen a time of such straits, that a letter coming to him the postage of which was only four cents, he could not pay for it. Bland, courteous, and prepossessing in his manners, he frequently invited the writer and his father to his house, and always seemed ready and anxious to do something that should avail. Under all these circumstances, and moreover as he resided more permanently in the city than the other three, Mr. Colburn was highly gratified at the offer of his influence in behalf of the book.

After considerable effort made in London to obtain subscribers, it was judged advisable for Mr. C. to visit Ireland and Scotland, in order to increase his list. He consented to the proposal, and a day or two before his departure called on Mr. Montagu. In conversation Mr. M. asked him what sum of money he had with him. On being told about 160 pounds sterling, or 710 dollars, he rejoined, "Mr. Colburn, you are going among strangers ; if in your absence you should be in want of money, send to Basil Montagu, 9 New Square, Lincoln's Inn, for ten, twenty, or fifty pounds, and you shall have it."

It need not be accounted strange, that such warm expressions of friendship should raise high expectations in those to whom they were addressed. Mr. Colburn had been so uniformly treated with kindness by Mr. Montagu, in word and deed, that he always looked up to him with more gratitude and confidence, than to the others associated in the committee. Indeed he expected and said that this gentleman would be the one, under whose friendly influence his affairs would favorably proceed to their happy issue, --- the education of his son, and their honorable return to their native country. All these fair prospects were in the course of a few years of disappointment entirely blasted.

Leaving London, they proceeded by way of Liverpool to Ireland. The good people of that city, more anxious about the success of their mercantile pursuits than the patronage of objects of curiosity, paid little attention to the young calculator. After tarrying among them four or five weeks, he sailed for the city of Dublin.

Liverpool Town Hall in the 1820s.