J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jedediah Buxton, Autistic Savant

Mike Rendell of the Georgian Gent blog recently profiled an English farmworker named Jedediah Buxton (c. 1702-1772), who was what we’d now consider a mathematical savant on the autistic spectrum:
From the age of twelve Jedediah was pre-occupied with numbers – adding, subtracting, and multiplying. At its most basic level there was a purpose – he could walk a field, calculate its square footage and then divide the total to establish how many broccoli plants would be needed to fill the field if planted seven feet apart, in rows four feet from each other. Except that having worked out the number of plants, he then complicated matters by recalculating the square footage by reference to the number of barley corns (at three barley corns per inch) and then how many human hairs (at 48 hairsbreadth to the inch). If that wasn’t bad enough, he would then decide to multiply the resulting figure by itself – to give a massive figure which would take hours to calculate. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, Jed could down tools and have a drink, and then carry on with these calculations in his head at a significantly later date – sometimes days and even weeks later.

In working out these figures, Jedediah invented several new numbers, to enable him to cope with the concept of “millions of millions of millions”. He referred to “tribes” (a figure of ten to the power of eighteen) and “cramps” (ten to the power of thirty nine ). He was known to be set a challenge, go back to digging ditches in the fields, cogitating and calculating, then sit down in the local pub at the end of the working day and, armed with his free drinks, would finish the number crunching. . . .

Jedediah had married Alice Eastwood at Ault Hucknall Church and they had three children − John, Susannah and Sara. But in 1753 Alice died. The following year some sort of wanderlust got into Jedediah and he walked down to London (200-odd miles) to see the sights, take in a show, whatever. He also thought that he would call in and see the King, but George II was not at home. So he went to see a play – the performance was Richard III at the Drury Lane Theatre and it was a chance to listen to David Garrick declaim – but Jedediah preferred to spend the entire performance counting the individual words spoken by the great thespian, and, in the case of the dancers, calculating how many steps they took.
By coincidence, PEN New England has just awarded one of its Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Awards for the year to Pamela Sonn for a picture book manuscript about Buxton. Sonn and two other winners will read from their work this Sunday at 6:30 P.M. at Simmons College.


Ken Lifshitz said...

This is a very interesting phenomena and some neuropsychologists have postulated that it stems from damage to the frontal cortext, usually from a blow. There is good evidence the Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer was one of these 'Accidental Geniuses'. I put together a presentation on him.

J. L. Bell said...

Historically one of the most interesting things about conditions on the autistic spectrum is how we humans keep trying to find explanations for them. Of course, there must be causes, but our explanations have often been better reflections of the current culture than of why some people's brains work the way they do. An injury to the brain makes more sense than "refrigerator mothers" or changelings or vaccinations, but may also reflect our wish to identify a specific cause rather than a complex constellation of factors. We'll see!