Shakuntala Devi - The Human Computer

This is a guest article by Radhika Bhangar from Maharashtra, India.

Can you find 23rd root of a 201-digit number? Seems strenuous right? But it was facile for the India's arithmetic prodigy, who calculated the answer in just 50 seconds (beating a computer). Without further perplexing let's assimilate more about this Indian genius who played with numbers like magic. Yes! she is none other than Shakuntala Devi.

What were you doing when you were 5 years old? Playing with action or dreaming to be an astronaut? By 5 years old, Devi was already supporting her family in the circus as a mathematical wizard. Yes, the actual circus.

Shakuntala Devi


Shakuntala Devi was an Indian mathematical wizard know as The Human Computer for her ability to make incredibly swift calculations. She was born on November 4, 1929 in Bengaluru, India. Shakuntala hailed from a poor background, her father according to The Telegraph, went against their family's orthodox Brahmin priestly tradition and joined the circus. He excelled in "trapeze, tightrope, lion taming and human cannonball acts".  She was just 3 years old when her father found that his daughter was memorizing the card sequence and calculating next move. He recognized her incredible arithmetic computation. Devi at the age of 5 starred in her own act by memorizing an entire shuffled deck of cards. Her father could not even afford her school fee of Rs. 2. Despite of all these austerity Devi made India proud by unveiling her mental skills in calculating complex mathematical problems within seconds.

Problems solved by Shakuntala Devi in 20 seconds or less

Throughout her childhood numbers were her toys. She spent her adolescence travelling across the world giving performances. Each time she wowed the audience with her speedy math skills. She did this without any formal education. As a 1976, New York Times article explains, " She could give you the cube root of 188,132,517 - or almost any number in time it took to ask the question. If you give her any date in the last century, she would tell you what day of week it fell on." What a genius!! She also demonstrated her arithmetic abilities at the University of Mysore when she was 6.

Also Read: Ramanujan's top contributions to Mathematics

Mental Calculations

Devi travelled the world demonstrating her arithmetic talents, including a tour of Europe in 1950 and performance in New York City in 1976. Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at university of California, Berkeley, tested her performance of several tasks, including calculations of large numbers. Examples presented to her included calculating cube root of 61,629,875 and seventh root of 170,859,375. Jensen reported that Devi provided the solutions above mentioned problems (395 and 15 respectively) before Jensen could copy them down in his notebook. He published his findings in the academic journal Intelligence in 1990.

In year 1977, at Southern Methodist University, she gave the 23rd root of a 201 digit number in 50 seconds. Her answer was 546,372,891 and was confirmed by calculations done at the US Bureau of standards by the UNIVAC 1101 Computer for which special program had to be written to perform such large calculations.

Shakuntala Devi

She also demonstrated the multiplication of two 13 digit numbers              7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779 - picked at random by Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,773,730 in just 28 seconds. This event was recorded in 1982 Guinness Book of Records. Writer Steven Smith said, " The result is so far superior to anything previously reported that it can only be described as unbelievable."

The Title of Human Computer

It was October 5th, 1950, when BBC host Leslie Mitchell gave her a complex math problem and Shakuntala solved it in seconds but answers didn't match. After re-checking the math, Mitchell confessed that Shakuntala was correct and the original answer was wrong. This news spread across the world and Shakuntala earned the title of the Human Computer.


Books She Wrote

  1. Astrology for you.
  2. Book of Numbers.
  3. Figuring: The Joy of Numbers.
  4. The Wonderland of Numbers.
  5. Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child.
  6. Perfect Murder.
  7. Super Memory: It Can Be Yours.
  8. The World of Homosexuals.

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