WHO WAS SHAKUNTALA DEVI?

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

In the '80s I saw a letter in Computing, the British weekly, that included a picture of Shakuntala Devi, the "Hindu Mathematical Wizardess". It reminded me of the time that I last (and first) saw her in 1953.

Our meeting came about because of some voting programs I ran on a Lockheed CPC for ABC during the 1952 elections, the same time that Univac made its tremendous splash for CBS by predicting a big victory for Eisenhower over Stevenson. Mine was nowhere near as impressive, but in those days a programmer seen on TV was much sought after for other shows. It resulted in an invitation to appear on the original Art Baker's "You Asked For It" show in a supporting role -- they were featuring the Hindu mathematical wizardess Shakuntala Devi, and I was to verify her answers. Not with a stored-program computer, mind you, but with a Friden desk calculator! Probably because I had some previous success running such a beast during World War II. Once when a famous Japanese soroban expert was visiting Lockheed, it was suggested that we have a speed challenge contest. We discussed it privately, however, and agreed that he would win at low precision, and I would win at 5 or 6 digits or more. No contest.

The time came, and I was told that one of the things Miss Devi would demonstrate was taking the 10th root of some numbers. I was supposed to do the same with the Friden, which boasted automatic square root! Undaunted, I inspected the 5th and 10th powers of the low integers, noting of course that the 5th power of those digits ended in the digit itself. 2 power 5 = 32, 3 power 5 = 243, etc. So in the show I entered the source number as she was given it. When she replied I hit the square root button and pointed, when the camera came my way, to the last digit in the answer field!

The studio was apparently satisfied with my work, for they gave me some money after the show and asked me to take the lady to dinner at a posh spot. I selected Ciro's, on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, a very celebrated place in its day. She ordered a curry, and I ordered prime rib, rare. When the food arrived she was very curious, asking what I was eating. I remember the exact words of my reply, in the idiom of the time, but not why I said it -- "You'll excuse the expression, but it's part of a cow". However, I returned her to her hotel amicably, still in awe of her mathematical prowess despite the square root trick.

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