Shakuntala Devi was an Indian writer and mathematical genius popularly known as the "human computer". She was reputed to make complicated mathematical calculations in her head and effortlessly speak out the results! Born into an impoverished family in southern India as the daughter of a circus performer, she started displaying her skills at an early age. Her father recognized her as a child prodigy and took her on road shows where she displayed her ability at calculation. What was really amazing about the young girl’s mathematical prowess was that she did not receive any formal education owing to her family’s financial situation, yet emerged to be one of the most brilliant mathematical minds of her time. Her phenomenal ability to perform the most complicated mathematical calculations without the aid of any technological device gained her much fame and she eventually became an international phenomenon. Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, tested and studied her abilities and published his findings in the academic journal ‘Intelligence’. Her extraordinary abilities also earned her a place in the 1982 edition of ‘The Guinness Book of World Records’. In addition, she was also a well known author of children’s books as well as works on mathematics, puzzles, and astrology.
Childhood & Early Life
Shakuntala Devi was born in Bengaluru, India, on 4 November 1929 to an orthodox Kannada Brahmin family. Her father was a traveling magician who had rebelled against his traditional family to pursue this unconventional profession instead of becoming a priest or astrologer as his forefathers had been.
Her family was a very poor one as her father hardly made enough to make ends meet. She could not even receive a formal education because of her family’s dire financial situation.
According to an anecdote, she started playing card games with her father when she was three years old. Her father realized that the little girl won all the games against him every day and suspected that she was cheating. He closely studied her as she played and realized that she was memorizing all the card numbers and their sequence as the game progressed in the initial rounds and used this knowledge to win the game.
On discovering his daughter’s special gift he began taking her on tours and displayed her ability at calculation on road shows. Soon she garnered much attention and was able to earn considerable money for her father.
Word spread about her amazing ability and soon she started appearing at universities in southern India. She displayed her skills to the faculty of the University of Mysore when she was six and went on to demonstrate her ability at the Annamalai University. She also performed at the Osmania University and the varsities of Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam.
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With time she became an internationally known name and she moved to London with her father in 1944. She travelled widely all over the world and demonstrated her skills in several countries including the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy, Canada, Russia, France, Spain, Mauritius, Indonesia and Malaysia.
In 1955, she appeared on a BBC show where the host Leslie Mitchell gave her a complex math problem to solve. She solved it in seconds but the host told her that her answer was incorrect as her answer was different from what the host and his team had calculated.
Mitchell then rechecked the answer and realized that Devi’s answer was the correct one and the original answer was wrong. This news spread across the world and Shakuntala earned the title of the 'Human Computer'.
She was often invited by educational institutions and in 1977 she visited the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, USA. There she was asked to calculate the 23rd root of a 201-digit number, which she solved in 50 seconds. It had taken four minutes for a professor to write the problem on the board, and it took more than a minute for a Univac computer to solve it.
She was also a successful astrologer and authored several books on the subject. In addition she also wrote texts on mathematics for children and puzzles. One of her most significant books was ‘The World of Homosexuals’ (1977) which is the first comprehensive study of homosexuality in India. The realization that her husband was a homosexual had made her look at homosexuality more closely.
Shakuntala Devi is best remembered for demonstrating the multiplication of two randomly picked 13-digit numbers—7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779 on 18 June 1980. She correctly gave the answer as 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds. This unbelievable feat of hers earned her a place in the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ in 1982.
She started the Shakuntala Devi Education Foundation Public Trust to provide quality education to children from underprivileged backgrounds. She also helped spread global awareness about India’s contribution towards mathematics.
Awards & achievements
In 1969 she was awarded the title of the 'Most Distinguished Woman of the Year' by the University of Philippines.
She received the 'Ramanujan Mathematical Genius' Award in Washington D.C in 1988.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married Paritosh Banerji, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata in the mid-1960s. The couple got divorced in 1979.
She died on 21 April 2013 after suffering from respiratory, heart, and kidney problems for some time.
She was honored with a Google Doodle for what would have been her 84th birthday on 4 November 2013.