1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Austrian-born wunderkind first took up the harpsichord when he was just 3 years old. He composed his first piece of published music at age 5, and by his teen years, he had already written several concertos, sonatas, operas and symphonies. Mozart and his sister Maria Anna—herself a musical prodigy—traveled widely through Europe exhibiting their talents in royal courts and public concerts. From Bavaria to Paris, audiences marveled at the boy wonder’s ability to improvise and play the piano blindfolded or with one hand crossed over the other. During a 1764 stopover in London, he was even tested and examined by a British lawyer and naturalist named Daines Barrington, who was awestruck by the 8-year-old’s ability to sight-read unfamiliar music “in a most masterly manner.” Mozart would eventually grow into one of Europe’s most celebrated and prolific composers. Before his untimely death at age 35, he wrote more than 600 pieces of music.
2. Enrico Fermi
Before his work on radioactivity won him the Nobel Prize and helped usher in the nuclear age, Enrico Fermi was considered a mathematics and physics prodigy. The Italy native showed signs of having a photographic memory as a boy, and by age 10 he was spending his free time mulling over geometric proofs and building electric motors. After his brother died unexpectedly in 1915, 13-year-old Enrico dealt with his grief by burying himself in books on trigonometry, physics and theoretical mechanics. He then applied to the University of Pisa in 1918, wowing the admissions panel with a doctoral-level essay that solved the partial differential equation of a vibrating rod. Fermi achieved his post-secondary degree from the school several years early at the age of just 21. He later conducted groundbreaking experiments in neutron bombardment and nuclear chain reactions before becoming one of the lead physicists on the Manhattan Project—the secret research program that developed the atomic bomb.
3. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Born in Mexico in 1651, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz learned to read as a toddler and quickly blazed through all the books in her grandfather’s library. Despite being denied a formal education because of her gender, she began writing religious poetry at age 8 and later taught herself Latin, supposedly mastering it in just 20 lessons. By her adolescence, she had also studied Greek logic and learned an Aztec language called Nahuatl. Juana’s reputation for genius later won her a place as a lady-in-waiting at the viceroy’s court in Mexico City. When she was 17, she was famously tested by a panel of 40 university professors, all of whom were shocked by her deep knowledge of philosophy, mathematics and history. The former child prodigy entered a convent at age 20 and spent the rest of her life as a cloistered nun. She continued her studies, however, and eventually established herself as one of the 17th century’s most popular authors of drama, poetry and prose. Her image now appears on the 200-peso bill in Mexico.
4. Pablo Picasso
As the son of a painter, Pablo Picasso had a brush in his hand from an early age. The future art legend could reportedly draw before he could talk, and his mother claimed that when he finally spoke, his first words were to ask for a pencil. Picasso made his first oil painting when he was 9 years old. His skills soon surpassed those of his father, and at age 14, he was admitted to a prestigious Barcelona art school. Just a year later, he completed “First Communion,” an astonishingly mature work that was displayed in a public exhibition. The painting was among the first of the more than 22,000 artworks that Picasso would produce in his eight-decade career. “When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk you’ll end up as the pope,’” he later said. “Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”
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5. Blaise Pascal
Born in 1623 in France, Blaise Pascal spent his youth being privately tutored at home by his father. The elder Pascal banished mathematics texts from the house to ensure the boy first focused on languages, but by age 12, young Blaise had secretly invented his own terminology and independently discovered nearly all the geometric proofs of Euclid. His mathematical genius only grew from there. At 16, he produced an essay on conic sections so advanced that the famed philosopher Rene Descartes was convinced his father must have ghostwritten it; by 19, he had designed and built a mechanical calculator known as the “Pascaline.” Pascal went on to publish papers and conduct experiments on everything from fluid mechanics and perpetual motion to atmospheric pressure and the philosophy of religion. Before his death at the age of 39, he developed his famous “Pascal’s Wager,” which uses probability theory to argue for belief in God.
6. Arthur Rimbaud
Vagabond poet Arthur Rimbaud is often held up as one of history’s few examples of a literary prodigy. An award-winning student, the Frenchman published his first work in 1870 at the age of 15 before running away to Paris and making his name as a writer and rabble-rouser. Rimbaud produced his early masterpiece “The Drunken Boat” when he was just 16. He followed it up three years later with “A Season in Hell,” a hallucinatory prose poem that helped set the stage for the surrealist movement. Along the way, he engaged in a drug and alcohol-fueled love affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine and won plaudits from the likes of Victor Hugo, who supposedly dubbed him “an infant Shakespeare.” While Rimbaud’s work would later influence Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and many others, the teen phenom stopped writing altogether at age 20. He later roamed through the Middle East and Africa and worked as a trader and gunrunner before dying from cancer at age 37.
7. Clara Schumann
German-born musician Clara Schumann didn’t speak until age 4, but by the time she was 7 she was already spending up to three hours a day mastering the piano. She began composing her own pieces at 10, and made her concert debut in 1830 at the age of 11. In 1831, Schumann embarked on the first of several tours of Europe, where she won acclaim from the likes of Chopin and Liszt and astonished audiences with her ability to play from memory. The young virtuoso later married fellow composer Robert Schumann in 1840, but defied convention by continuing to write and perform even while raising her children. By the time she died in 1896, Schumann had spent six decades as a professional musician and played more than 1,300 public concerts.
8. Jean-Francois Champollion
The secrets of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics might never have been revealed if not for the former child prodigy Jean-Francois Champollion. Born in France in 1790, he displayed a natural talent for languages from an early age and went on to master Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, Sanskrit and Coptic by his mid-teens. Champollion presented his first academic paper at 16, and by 19 he was already teaching history at a school in Grenoble. In the early 1820s, the young polyglot turned his attention toward deciphering the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone. He soon became the first philologist to recognize that the symbols of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were both pictographic and alphabetical—a breakthrough that proved to be the key to cracking the code of a long-lost language.