In 1852, the University of Michigan campus was an open meadow where cows roamed and hay was harvested. There, Professor Henry Tappan became U-M’s first president—a man of vision and imperturbable poise.
Tappan wanted a “university worthy of the name” with a curriculum that favored science, engineering, and research. His haughty manner rubbed the regents the wrong way, but he inspired reverence among the students. He called them “boys,” and they, over time and with affection, came to call him Old Tap.
Professor as well as president, Tappan was lecturing one morning on the topic of space when a slight, sallow man interrupted. “Is the president of the University in this room?”
The speaker was William Hutchings, known first as the Boy Lightning Calculator of Barnum’s American Museum and later as Professor Hutchings. The skittish math prodigy made computations of incredible complexity, and he eventually rose to regional fame as the author of The Lightning Calculator, a book of mathematics that claimed to include “new processes of addition,” and later as a veteran sideshow barker who introduced the Ossified Man and Dog-Faced Boy at a dime-store museum.
Hutchings chose Tappan’s class as the stage on which to showcase his powers of mathematical deduction. Old Tap decided to give the “prof” 10 minutes.
A student wrote a long column of numbers on the board while the calculator contorted, fidgeted, and fussed, finally delivering the correct sum after giving the board just a quick glance—a process he repeated several times.
Tappan, intrigued, peppered the man with questions: Was the technique mental? Mechanical? And how was the man’s health? To Tappan, the man seemed feeble.
Hutchings offered to prove his mental and physical soundness to Tappan if Tappan invited the man to dinner—a proposal so improper the students gasped and tittered. Even the unflappable Tappan looked off balance.
But Old Tap recovered quickly and politely declined. “I regret to say I am myself invited out today,” he told the Lightning Calculator.
The Calculator bowed gallantly and left. The room quiet again, Tappan returned to his lecture.