How an enslaved man from Africa became one of the world’s most brilliant mathematicians – The inspiring story of Thomas Fuller, the “Virginia calculator”

Thomas Fuller is historically portrayed as a figure who derailed the perception of black inferiority particularly during the arduous period of slavery and negro subjugation.

Commonly known as the “Virginia Calculator”, Thomas Fuller was an enslaved African renowned for his exceptional mathematical abilities and wit.

Thomas Fuller was born in the African continent, someplace between present-day Liberia and Benin, in 1710. At the teenage age of 14, Fuller was captured and shipped to work as a slave on a plantation. Consequently, he fell under the control of Presley and Elizabeth Cox of Alexandria, Virginia. They were in possession of some 232 acres of land. Thomas Fuller was said to be the most valued slave of the Coxes who were sole custodians of 16 slaves. With time, Fuller expressed gratitude for not being sold.

Thomas Fuller never had access to education and never learned to read or write in English. He was illiterate.


One of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Dr Benjamin Rush, an indigene from Philadelphia, took keen on Thomas Fuller. He was crucial in helping publicize Fuller’s captivating brilliance.

According to Dr. Rush, Fuller told two men who came to interview him in the latter part of his life that he taught himself “by counting ten, and then upwards hundred.” Fuller then counted “the number of hairs in a cow’s tail, which he found to be 2872.”

A 70-year-old Thomas Fuller was once put to the test by William Hartshorne and Samuel Coates. Both Quakers (Members of a Christian Movement), arrived in Alexandria and having caught in the web of curiosity of Fuller’s powers, they reached out to him.

Two questions were posed to Thomas Fuller.

Firstly, they asked him how many seconds are there in a year and a half, he answered each question in about two minutes, 47,304,000.

Secondly, they asked him how many seconds a man has lived who is 70 years, 17 days and 12 hours old, he answered in 90 seconds 2,210,500,800. One of the men who was doing a check on a paper informed Fuller that his answer was too high. An objective Fuller hastily replied, “Top, Massa (Master), you forget de leap year.” When the leap year was added in, the sums were correct.

A third question though often not considered, involved the increase of farm animals, and that was also solved correctly. Thomas Fuller did his calculations without the aid of paper or pencil.

On one occasion, Fuller performed calculations for two different Messrs, one of whom called it a “pity” that he had not been better educated. Fuller responded that “many learned men be great fools.”

 Thomas Fuller passed away on December 1790.

Author: Delvid Stanley-Coker

Delvid Stanley-Coker is a dedicated writer and editor for The African Dream. His passion and desire to publicize the appreciable department of Africa and voice out the prevalent ills of society have adequately contributed to the promulgation of stories of different sorts. Email: WhatsApp: +23276737886 Facebook: Delvid Stanley-Coker.

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