About 2500 years ago, an apparatus of
stringed beads called the abacus was created to substitute for
reliance on human memory when adding and subtracting.
It is still used in parts of East Asia today.
In 1617, John Napier, the Scottish mathematician who
developed logarithms, invented an instrument of square “bones”
on a set of rods that gave users the ability to multiply numbers.
Napier’s Bones was used widely in Europe into the
The seventeenth century saw three
mathematicians each invent a machine for performing mathematical
computations. In 1623, Wilhelm Schickard of Germany constructed the first
adding machine, the Calculating Clock, which used dented wheels to
add or subtract up to six figures.
It did not become well known because the model was
destroyed in a fire, and Schickard died of Bubonic Plague in 1630.
In 1643, Blaise Pascal of France built an adding machine
with notched dials in a rectangular box to help his father, a tax
collector, compute long series of numbers.
The Pascaline garnered quite a bit of attention, but less
than 15 were purchased because it was too expensive and difficult
to use. In 1674,
Gottfried von Leibniz, co-developer of differential calculus,
adapted the principles of a pedometer (step-counting device) to a
machine that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
The key parts of his Stepped Reckoner included a cylinder
with teeth, wheels, and a crank.
Only two prototypes were made.
Several other inventors built calculating machines in the
eighteenth century, but the instrument remained primarily a
novelty until the nineteenth century.
In 1820, Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar
France invented the first practical calculator, based on
Leibniz’s principles, which performed the four basic functions
of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Nearly 1500 Thomas Arithmometers were sold over the next
110 years. An item
in Harper’s Weekly “Notes on the
Arts and Sciences” column of February 14, 1857, reported that
Thomas had recently made improvements to his calculating machine.
The piece discussed the complicated computations the device
could perform and praised its ease of use.