In 1710, Thomas Fuller was born in Africa in the area between present-day Liberia and Benin. At 14, he was brought as a slave to America and became the property of Mrs. Elizabeth Cox of Alexandria, Virginia. Known as the Virginia Calculator, Fuller exhibited extraordinary computational abilities. He could calculate the number of months, days weeks, hours, minutes and seconds in any given period of time; the number of poles, yards, feet and inches in any given distance; and even the sum of geometric progressions. Not only did he perform these mathematical feats while being interrupted in the process, but he would take less time than most men did with pencil and paper.
He was paraded by the abolitionists as proof that blacks were not mentally inferior to whites and ridiculed by psychologists as being nothing more than an idiot savant. It is worth noting that the illustrious Ghanaian philosopher, William Frederick Amo was also dismissed as "a parrot" by European intellectuals at Heidelberg University.
Fuller was not unique in displaying advanced computational ability. Other Africans, particularly the African slave traders, were also observed to exhibit their mathematical agility.
In 1788, Thomas Clarkson substantiated this fact with the following comment:
It is astonishing with what facility the African brokers reckon up the exchange of European goods for slaves. One of these brokers has ten slaves to sell , and for each of these he demands ten different articles. He reduces them immediately by the head to bars, coppers, ounces... and immediately strikes the balance. The European, on the other hand, takes his pen, and with great deliberation, and with all the advantage of arithmetick (sic) and letters, begin to estimate also. He is so unfortunate, as to make a mistake: but he no sooner errs, than he is detected by this man of inferiour (sic) capacity, whom he can neither deceive in the name or quality of his goods, nor in the balance of his account.
The question therefore arises as to whether Fuller had a firm grounding of mathematical concepts prior to his capture. Fuller's exceptional abilities can only be understood through the cultural environment which fostered this pattern of thinking.
Recent research has shown that Africans incorporated mathematical concepts informally in their daily activities ranging from simple tallying on the notches on the Ishango bone (discovered in 1960: dated about 6500 BCE), which is believed to be the first table of prime numbers, to esoteric fractal geometry, referred to as "the fusion between mathematics and information technology". Elements of fractal geometry are evident in African architecture, traditional hairstyling, textiles, sculpture, games and symbolic systems.
Africa Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture, Claudia Zaslavsky. Prindle, Weber & Schmidt, 1974.
African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, Ron Eglash. Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern (Journal of African Civilizations; Vol. 5, No. 1-2), Ivan Van Sertima (ed.). Transaction Publishers, 1990.
Geometry from Africa: Mathematical and Educational Explorations (Classroom Resource Materials), Paulus Gerdes. Mathematical Association of America, 1999.
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Women, Art and Geometry in Southern Africa, Paulus Gerdes. Africa World Press, 1998.
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Thomas Fuller, African slave and mathematician
Thomas Fuller (1710-1790) - Mathematics and the Liberal Arts
Mathematicians of the African Diaspora
Who Was "The African Calculator?"
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