Lightning Calculators

Published on Sunday, January 14, 2007 in , , , ,

Alexander Craig Aitken, 1895 - 1967A “lightning calculator”, for those not familiar with the term, is simply someone who can perform seemingly complex math in their head very quickly. They're also often called “Human Calculators”. To get a better idea of what a lightning calculator is, you can watch people such as Badri Narayanan, Scott Flansburg, Ruediger Gamm, Daniel Tammet (The full documentary is also available), Arthur Benjamin and Mike Byster.

While you can see current masters of the art on video, you can also learn about lightning calculators of the past, as well. One such past master was Alexander Aitken (pictured above), who is regarded among the best of them.

Part of the original lure of this type of act, as a form of entertainment, spoke to human potential. It demonstrated that the human brain was capable of amazingly complex tasks, and even suggested that the brain had limitless potential. Much like super memory acts, they changed their audience's ideas about what was possible (at least when presented well).

Lightning calculators usually fell into one of two camps. First, there were the savants, many of whom had a natural ability with numbers.

The other group were people who had learned and practiced feats of mental math. If you would like to try your hand at such feats, there are numerous resources available. Among my favorites are the Mental Gym, Arthur Benjamin's videos, BEATCALC, MathPath, the Lightning Calcuator book and Mike Byster's Math Shortcuts. With this kind of help, you may be able to perform as a lightning calculator yourself.

As an entertainment, it used to be a vastly more popular form of entertainment than it is now. Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, they theorize the pocket calculator was the largely responsible. However, the current issue of Plus Magazine (issue 41, at this writing) delves deeper in the issue of the death of the lightning calculator.

I would like to suggest that writing about the death of lightning calculators is premature. First, with the right presentation, a human calculator act could be more impressive today than ever. Performed as a man vs. machine challenge, especially with today's fast computers, this could be a big hit.

Even though, as the Plus article suggests, there is a politically correct argument against savants using their skills in this way, this isn't always the case. Not all savants are helpless, disabled people. Kim Peek tours schools, and inspired the movie Rain Man, while Daniel Tammet runs his own company. If a savant were to decide to do such an act out of his or her own free will, I don't think it should be considered exploitation.

I hope you've enjoyed this look into the little-explored world of lightning calculators.

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1 Response to Lightning Calculators

8:10 AM

Very nice.

Thanks :)