Shakuntala Devi Was India's Human Computer

Can you find the 23rd root of a 201-digit number? The late Shakuntala Devi, India's arithmetic prodigy, calculated the answer in just 50 seconds (beating a computer).

Numbers Were Her Toys

What were you doing at 5 years old—playing with action figures, or dreaming of becoming an astronaut, perhaps? By 5 years old, Devi was already supporting her family in the circus as a mathematical wizard. Yes, the actual circus. Although Devi's parents were unable to afford a formal education for her in Bangalore, India, Devi's dad recognized her incredible arithmetic computation and memory skills while playing cards. According to The Telegraph, her dad went against their family's orthodox Brahmin priestly tradition and joined the circus instead. He excelled in "trapeze, tightrope, lion taming and human cannonball acts," and 5-year-old Devi starred in her own act by memorizing an entire shuffled deck of cards. We all have our talents.

Throughout her childhood, numbers were her toys. Devi spent her adolescence traveling across the world giving performances. Each time, she wowed the audience with her speedy math skills. As a 1976 New York Times article explains, "She could give you the cube root of 188,132,517—or almost any other number—in the time it took to ask the question. If you gave her any date in the last century, she would tell you what day of the week it fell on."

From the Circus to the Guinness Book of World Records

One particularly noteworthy performance was in 1977 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Devi earned her title as the "human computer" when she found the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds—12 seconds faster than the Univac computer. Then, Devi earned a spot in the 1982 Guinness Book of World Records when she multiplied two 13-digit numbers at the Imperial College in London. She solved the equation in 28 seconds (including the time it took for her to recite the solution).

In 1988, Devi was tested by educational psychologist Arthur Jensen of the University of California at Berkeley. Jensen reported that Devi's "manipulation of numbers is apparently like a native language." While other prodigies like Rain Man were autistic savants, Jensen says Devi was "a vibrant lady who was sharp-minded and energetic," and she "built on her inherent skills through intense practice as a child." In addition to being an arithmetic genius, Devi was a successful astrologer and novelist. Maybe it's time to pick up a pack of cards and join the circus?

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Meet India's Human Computer

What day did November 20th fall on in the year 1851? Shakuntala Devi knew the answer immediately.

Written by Curiosity Staff January 10, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.