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9/13/11

Zerah Colburn, Eighth Wonder of The World


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 I won't be posting for a while. In the meantime, click on the red dice at right for a chance read.

So many fascinating lives are lost to popular history, such as the life below. They came, walked their minutes on the stage, and then were gone.

For many, Zerah Colburn (1804-1839) was regarded as an eighth wonder of the world. In 1810, his father, Abia Colburn, heard his 5 year old son reciting multiplication tables while playing among the wood chips in the workshop. Zerah had been at school for about six weeks.
He had not been taught arithmetic, so he must have overheard older students in the one-room school house. Abia found that Zerah could also do complicated math questions rapidly in his head. His father saw in the boy a money machine and took Zerah around the country on exhibition. Men of means and character understood the use he was making of his son, and urged Abia to have the boy well-educated. They disagreed publicly, saying Abia should have his son's schooling uppermost in mind.

On a steam boat, the father and son met Amos Kendall who later described Abia as “an ignorant man” who was “obnoxious to the other passengers,” and that Abia was more interested in money than in Zerah’s education. Later, in London, they met dukes, lords, princes, kings and generals, including inventor Sir William Congreve and statesman William Wilberforce. Wilberforce urged the father to give his son an education and to abandon exhibiting the boy.

In 1816, the Earl of Bristol met the boy. Uninterested in how Zerah could calculate, he and other influential men made provisions for Zerah, age 12, to attend Westminster School, all expenses paid. Zerah attended it for three years until his father removed him due to a disagreement with administrators.

Typical of prodigies who are stage-managed, Zerah did not live up to his early potential. He became an itinerant preacher, a circuit-rider, traveling between communities in eastern Vermont. In 1829, he and Mary Hoyt wed. They had five daughters and one son.

In 1833, he began writing his memoirs, which includes chapters on calculations he was able to do in his head. In it we also find poems by him.

He was also gifted in languages, having learned French and German while in Europe. Appointed Professor of Latin, Greek, French and Spanish languages and English Classical Literature in 1835 at Norwich University, he taught there until his death at 35 from consumption (tuberculosis) in 1839. His and Mary's tombstones are found in the Old Meeting House Cemetery, Northfield, Vermont.

Above is a copy of the only picture of Zerah Colburn, an engraving done when he was in England. (Pictures of his nephew do exist.) Zerah, like his father and great grandmother, had an extra digit on each hand and foot. Two or three of his brothers also had extra digits. If sufficiently enlarged the picture reveals an extra finger. At 8, in London, Zerah's small extra digits were removed by a Dr. Carlisle. He also had extra toes, but we don’t know if they were removed.

More can be found here, here, and here.
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Zerah had a nephew, also named Zera Colburn, who lived in England as editor of The Engineer, and who launched another magazine, Engineering. Both magazines survive today. This Zerah was also a designer and builder of steam locomotives. Hard-drinking, drug addicted, a womanizer and a bigamist, back in the USA the nephew shot himself in the head, dying in a Massachusetts pear orchard at the age of 37.
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