10 Child Prodigies

Shakuntala Devi
Shakuntala Devi was more than a human computer. She was also an astrologer, novelist and cookbook author. Hetvee S. Patel CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Known as the "human computer," Shakuntala Devi performed astounding feats of mental calculations — including solving problems faster than the fastest early computers — starting when she was just a little girl in India.

Devi was born in Bangalore in 1929, the daughter of a trapeze artist, lion tamer and magician. Playing cards with her father at 3 years old, Devi showed an incredible facility for memorizing numbers, including entire decks of cards. Her father, a savvy showman, introduced young Devi to mathematics and began grooming her for the stage [source: Pandya].

Devi fell for numbers the way that other toddlers love toys and crayons. By the time she was 6, she was performing regularly as part of her father's magic show, doing card tricks and calculations. And before long, the crowds came just to see Devi, with her father taking on a new role as her manager. She toured all over India and the world while growing up.

Her specialty was cube roots, which she could find for numbers in the trillions in a matter of seconds. Another favorite trick was identifying the day of the week for any date in history. But one of her most memorable feats was in 1977, when she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds, beating a Univac computer (an early computer) by 12 seconds [source: Jensen].

In 1980, her fame was immortalized when she made the Guinness World Records for the fastest multiplication of two 13-digit numbers. She did it in 28 seconds, including the time required to write out the 26-digit solution. Far from her machine-like nickname, Devi was an outgoing and warm person. She died in 2013 at the age of 83 [source: Pandya].

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