At some point Fuller was purchased by Presley and Elizabeth Cox, who farmed 232 acres of land four miles west of Alexandria. He remained there the rest of his life, never learning to read or write and receiving no instruction in arithmetic. According to Rush, Fuller told two men who came to interview him late in his life that he taught himself "by counting ten, and that when he was able to count an hundred, he thought himself (to use his own words) 'a very clever fellow.'" He then counted "the number of hairs in a cow's tail, which he found to be 2872." Fuller also told the men that he was grateful to Elizabeth Cox, whose husband had died in 1782, for not selling him, "which she had been tempted to do by offers of large sums of money, from several curious persons."
Rush reports at length on the particulars of Fuller's calculations. Two white men, both Quakers from Pennsylvania, traveled to the Cox farm and posed several problems for him to solve, including how many seconds are in a year and half (47,304,000) and how many seconds are in seventy years, seventeen days, and twelve hours (2,210,500,800). One of the men argued that the second solution was too large, but Fuller reminded him of leap years. A third question involved the increase of farm animals, and all questions were solved correctly, within a minute or two, and without the aid of paper or pencil. On another occasion Fuller performed calculations for two different men, one of whom called it a "pity" that he had not been better educated. Fuller replied that "many learned men be great fools." The scholar William F. Mugleston has acknowledged the possibility that Fuller had savant syndrome, but he also argues that no evidence beyond Fuller's specific arithmetic skills supports this. John Fauvel and Paulus Gerdes argue further argue that the evidence doesn't support the idea that Fuller had a low IQ, and they point to "a rich tradition of mental calculations among illiterate people" in Africa.
ca. 1710 - Thomas Fuller is born, probably in West Africa.
ca. 1724 - Thomas Fuller is kidnapped in West Africa and sold into slavery in Virginia.
November 14, 1788 - Dr. Benjamin Rush, of Philadelphia, writes an account on the mathematical abilities of the Virginia slave Thomas Fuller.
December 29, 1790 - The Columbian Centinel newspaper in Boston publishes an obituary for Thomas Fuller, an enslaved man in Alexandria known for his mathematical abilities.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Thomas Fuller (ca. 1710–1790). (2018, March 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Fuller_Thomas_ca_1710-1790.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Thomas Fuller (ca. 1710–1790)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 28 Mar. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 12, 2018 | Last modified: March 28, 2018
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.