A wizard in any age
The obituary was unusual in that Negro Tom, who was otherwise known as Tom Fuller, had never been anywhere near Boston. He died almost 500 miles away in Fairfax County, Virginia, near Alexandria, where he had lived out his entire adult life. A search through the Alexandria newspaper of the time yields no mention of a Tom Fuller. One must look elsewhere (to county tax and probate records first) for the story of this man with the remarkable mind -- an arithmetical prodigy in any century.
Tom Fuller was born in Africa. At the age of fourteen, he was brought to Alexandria, then a small town in His Majesty's Colony of Virginia, and sold into a lifetime of slavery. He worked his entire life as a field hand. for most of these years he was owned by Presley and Elizabeth Cox, a childless couple who presided over a 232 acre farm four miles from Alexandria. Very early in his adult life, Fuller taught himself calculation -- first counting to ten, then to one hundred. In the limited world of a field slave, he sought for some way to use his new discovery, and began by investigating a cow's tail. He counted the hairs -- exactly 2872, as he recalled years later. He then amused himself by counting a bushel of wheat and a bushel of flax seed, grain by grain. In some fashion, short of genius, he developed a new technique of multiplication for the number of poles, yards, feet, inches for any given distance, including the diameter of the earth's obrit!
Mrs. Cox, herself illiterate, realized that Tom, the slave, possessed a talent which ought to be put to practical use, and she eventually employed him in all aspects of the plantation life.
How many shingles for the new roof? How many poles and rails to enclose the meadow? How much corn to seed a designated field? The answers were immediate, and always correct.
As the years passed, rumors in this remarkable slave moved throught the countryside. But his ownersalways declined these offers, and Tom Fuller acknowledged his gratitude for their refusal to sell him.
In December, 1782, Presley Cox died. His death is of interest here because the inventory of his estate lists just one of the 16 slaves for which he was taxed in 1782. "Negro Tom" heads the list of personal property, with a value of bolster, and well above the numerous lesser items such as a looking glass, a pewter teapot and assorted furniture.
Tom Fuller, as well as most of the other slaves, remained on the land with Elizabeth Cox.
In 1777, a Philadelphia Quaker and businessman, William Hartshorne, moved his large family from Philadelphia to Alexandria. What has William Hartshorne to do with Tom Fuller? Much, as it turns out. From the scattered references, we can infer that William Hartshorne was, at the very least, a "closet" abolitionist. He and three fellow Quakers traveledfrom Philadelphia to meet the slave known for his arithmetic feats. One of the visitors took notes and made calculations on paper, and the others fired questions at the gray-haired old slave.
First question: How many seconds are there in a year and a half? In about two minutes came Tom Fuller's reply -- 47,304,000. Next question: How many seconds has a man lived who is seventy years, seventeen days and twelve hours old? Fuller's answer -- 2,210,500,800 -- came in a minute and a half. "Objection," called the recorder, who was busily multiplying on paper. He challenged Fuller's answer as being too large. But Fuller retorted promptly" " 'top, massa, you forget de leap years." By adding the seconds of the leap years, the recorder finally acknowledged the correctness of Fuller's result.
The final question was proposed to Fuller: Suppose a farmer has six sows and each sow has six female pigs the first year, and they all increase in the same proportion each year. At the end of the eighth year, how many sows will the farmer have? The question was stated in such a way that Fuller misinterpreted it. as soon as the statement was clarified, his lightning mind responded: 34, 588,806. (No wonder that Fuller misinterpreted the question. The use of "proportion" in this context is ambiguous.)
Filled with awe before this modest old man, the Philadelphians picked up their notes and took their leave. As they departed, one of the visitors remarked what a pity it was that this man had been denied an education. Perhaps demeaning himself too much, old Tom Fuller disagreed: "No, massa -- it is best I got no learning, for many learned men be great fools."
William Hartshorne's colleagues returned to Philadelphia and immediately called on Dr. Benjamin rush, one of the leading abolitionists of the day, who presently turned their report into a letter to the Abolitionist Society of Pennsylvania, from whence it was transmitted to the London Abolitionist Society. For a brief moment late in his life, this modest black man became a cause celebre on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
So when, in 1790, Tom Fuller's epitaph came out of Boston, this elegy was included:
"Thus died Negro Tom, this self-taught arithmetician, this untutored Scholar! -- Had his opportunities of improvement been equal to those of thousands of his fellow-men, neither the Royal Society of London, the Academy of Science at Paris , nor even Newton himself, need have been ashamed to acknowledge him a Brother in Science."