In 1810, Zareh Colburn took Vermont – and the world – by storm with his uncanny mathematical ability. Born in 1804 in Cabot, Vt., Zareh’s parents were simple farmers. His family was poor and he was the youngest of six children.
One day while working in a wood shop, Zareh’s father Abia overheard the boy muttering to himself while playing on the floor of the shop. The child was reciting multiplication tables: “seven times five is 35; eight times five is 40 . . . “
Abia was puzzled over how the boy of only five had mastered multiplication and it struck him that perhaps he was simply repeating something he had heard. So he asked him: “How much is 13 times 97?”
Abia and Zareh
The boy answered: “1261,” without missing beat.
The discovery of Zareh’s talent would start a remarkable journey for the youngster. His father carted him to the state legislature, where he left the representatives from around the state astounded. From there, he travelled to Hanover, N.H., where the president of Dartmouth College offered to house Zareh and see to his education. But Abia thought better offers lay ahead.
Abia and Zareh travelled to Boston and to Harvard College and a group of men put together a plan to raise and educate Zareh. Money would be generated for the boy by occasional exhibitions of his skills. Abia rejected the offer.
The two continued on their way south, to New York and Washington, D.C. and Richmond, VA. Word of Zareh’s gift spread. Some concluded his abilities were a miracle direct from God. Others assumed there was a scientific explanation, and that perhaps his abilities could be repeated in others.
Still others misunderstood his gifts altogether. At one stop, a woman told the child that she had been robbed of silver spoons and she wanted him to use his powers to identify the thief – a mystical ability he neither claimed nor possessed.
Zareh Colburn Tours
After raising funds on his southern exhibition, Abia bought passage to Europe and Zareh began touring again in 1812. In Dublin, he put on a contest with Ireland’s William Rowan Hamilton – an Irish boy with similar gifts. Zareh prevailed.
From Ireland, to England, to France, and finally back to England, Zareh would spend the next seven years bouncing among different schools and raising money off his exhibitions, astounding audiences by instantly answering randomly raised questions such as, what is the square root of 888,888 and how many seconds are there in 11 years.
Abia’s father died when he was 24, and the young man – whose schooling had been erratic with a focus on mathematics and foreign languages–returned home. Zareh’s peculiar gifts faded at about the time he reached adulthood. Back in Vermont, Zerah worked as a traveling Methodist minister. Then he finally settled in as a professor of languages at Norwich University.
Zareh Colburn died at 34 from tuberculosis. His mathematical abilities, he concluded, were partly a natural gift and partly a miracle of God. In his 1833 memoir he wrote about his travels. In it, he tried to explain some of the ways he solved mathematical problems so quickly.
This story updated in 2022.