I recall an anecdote of Isaac Asimov producing a total faster than a store cashier.

My recollection is that when the cashier commented on how this demonstrated Asimov's intelligence he shared that patterns in costs allowed clever abstractions to an easy sum. Asimov shared his technique but the cashier reacted in disgust, saying that it was "just a trick".

I would like to use this story, but I can't find a primary source despite quite a bit of searching. I found a vague reference to a similar story in a book called Speed Math for Kids at the end of page 197, but this doesn't confirm the story to be real and not "just an urban myth".

Does anyone know of a primary source?

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    not directly related but this reminds me of Feynman competing with a Chinese abacus expert (who used an abacus at his store) -- it was in the movie Infinity which I just rewatched; i assume but don't recall if it was in Feynman's autobio. Feynman relied on a "trick" to beat the expert in extracting cube roots which I had no idea could be done with an abacus.
    – releseabe
    Oct 7, 2020 at 0:26
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    I agree this is more Feynman I think. The specific scene youtu.be/5GFLkgDAzNY . Asimov's cashier story is more likely to be about himself working in his father's candy store than doing math tricks. Oct 7, 2020 at 4:06
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    See also THE FEELING OF POWER by Isaac Asimov Worlds of Science Fiction, February 1958 Copyright 1957 by Quinn Publishing Co., Inc. Which is on the internet with a search for Asimov and cashier. But it's about a guy doing math for a General in a computer dependent society. Oct 7, 2020 at 4:14
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    I also thought of "The Feeling of Power" when I read this - perhaps he used it as an introduction to the story in a collection? Oct 7, 2020 at 7:04
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    I've checked 15 introductions, editorials, essays, etc. where Asimov talked about "The Feeling of Power", as well as his book "Quick and Easy Math". Nothing.
    – Ubik
    Oct 7, 2020 at 7:25

3 Answers 3


I googled asimov "just a trick" and for me the last result on the first page is an excerpt from Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It by Kenneth L. Higbee, ISBN 9780738212975. Here is that excerpt (google books has some strange magic that means text isn't actually text)

an excerpt from the mentioned book

Unfortunately for us, chapter note 41 is not available in the google books preview, nor do I have the real book to hand. However, more googling turns up a probably-not-entirely-legitimately-licensed online text, whence we can extract note 41 for the relevant chapter:

Psychology Today: An Introduction, 2d ed. (Del Mar, Calif.: CRM Books, 1972), 97.

And there for me the trail runs cold, although I note that a 1979 book by the same name - a later edition perhaps? - specifically mentions having "commentaries by Isaac Asimov", so it's a good lead I think...


There seems to be no primary source for this story.

Based on very helpful comments under the question: if this anecdote is real there isn't a primary source readily available to prove it.

It may be one of those stories that spread more because it was useful than because it was true.


I’ve read his autobiography “I, Asimov” several times and do not recall this anecdote. It’s possible the story is non-canonical. You could check “In Memory Yet Green”; if the story is true, that is where it will most likely be.

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