The Uncalculated History of Mechanical Calculators.

My recent meet with the Pope jogged my memory about the existence of such forgotten gadgets as the arithmometer. The device being used may still be remembered by some in my generation, while to younger generations the ‘contraption’ is an antique – a relic from eons ago – when there was no Facebook (imagine?), and not even any Internet (WHAT?!).

But on this pre-digital analog bit of kit once the accounting of the whole world depended, and more besides. Therefore, this post is all about arithmometers, because history is worth knowing – especially when it’s as intriguingly quaint as this :).

What an invention! Of course, you could read all about it on Wikipedia, but here I’ll give you a summary of what are, IMHO, the highlights.

Mechanical calculators appeared… more than 2000 years ago! The ancient Greeks used them! What, didn’t you know? I kind of did, but – once again (eek!) – my memory later failed me. So I looked up the details to refreshen those synapses.

Aha – here she is, the beut! The Antikythera mechanism – originating one or two centuries BC; that is – 2100+ years ago!

The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient analog computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes, as well as the Olympiads, the cycles of the ancient Olympic Games.

Found housed in a 340 millimeters× 180 millimeters× 90 millimeter wooden box, the device is a complex clockwork mechanism composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears. Its remains were found as one lump, later separated into three main fragments, which are now divided into 82 separate fragments after conservation works. Four of these fragments contain gears, while inscriptions are found on many others. The largest gear is approximately 140 millimeters in diameter and originally had 223 teeth. (Wikipedia)

Oh those Greeks!

Fast forward some 1600 years, and the next example of a mechanical calculator gets drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. That device was a 16-bit adding machine with 10-tooth cogs.

Another long pause – of 120 years…

Surviving notes from Wilhelm Schickard in 1623 report that he designed and had built the earliest of the modern attempts at mechanizing calculation. His machine was composed of two sets of technologies: first an abacus made of Napier’s bones, to simplify multiplications and divisions first described six years earlier in 1617, and for the mechanical part, it had a dialed pedometer to perform additions and subtractions.

Two decades later…

Blaise Pascal designed [a] calculator to help in the large amount of tedious arithmetic required; it was called Pascal’s Calculator or Pascaline. 

30 years later – the ‘stepped reckoner’… 

– A digital mechanical calculator [was] invented by the German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It was the first calculator that could perform all four arithmetic operations. Its intricate precision gearwork … was somewhat beyond the fabrication technology of the time.

And after that, a veritable arms calculator race ensued…

[In 1674 came] Samual Morland’s ‘arithmetical machine’ by which the four fundamental rules of arithmetic were readily worked “without charging the memory, disturbing the mind, or exposing the operations to any uncertainty” (regarded by some as the world’s first multiplying machine).

In 1709…

[Giovanni] Poleni was the first to build a calculator that used a pinwheel design.

And here come the warm jets real arithmometers, not their precursors…

Thomas de Colmar‘s [arithmometer] became the first commercially successful mechanical calculator. Its sturdy design gave it a strong reputation of reliability and accuracy and made it a key player in the move from human computers to calculating machines that took place during the second half of the 19th century.

Its production debut of 1851 launched the mechanical calculator industry, which ultimately built millions of machines well into the 1970s [!!!!]. For forty years, from 1851 to 1890, the arithmometer was the only type of mechanical calculator in commercial production and it was sold all over the world. During the later part of that period two companies started manufacturing clones of the arithmometer: Burkhardt, from Germany, which started in 1878, and Layton of the UK, which started in 1883. Eventually about twenty European companies built clones of the arithmometer until the beginning of WWII.

Meanwhile in Russia, in the same decade (1850-1860), Pafnuty Chebyshev made the first Russian arithmometer.

Less than a generation later, another resident of Russia (a Swedish immigrant engineer) began line manufacture of the Odhner Arithmometer

From 1892 to the middle of the 20th century, independent companies were set up all over the world to manufacture Odhner’s clones and, by the 1960s, with millions sold, it became one of the most successful type[s] of mechanical calculator ever designed.

Fast forward to September 28, 2016, and a certain Eugene Kaspersky gives Pope Francis one such Odhner Arithmometer:

Its industrial production officially started in 1890 in Odhner’s Saint Petersburg workshop.

The modest workshop gradually turned into a mechanical and copper founding plant, named the Odhner-Gill factory, where in its first year were produced 500 arithmometers. The factory increased production rapidly, seeing more than 5000 arithmometers produced in 1896. Sales of the calculator expanded across the world, making the company the first Russian exporter in the field of calculating equipment. (Source)

So, it turns out 130+ years ago Russia was an exporter of computing hardware!

In 1891 Odhner opened a branch of his factory in Germany. Unfortunately he had to sell it in 1892 to Grimme, Natalis & Co. because of the difficulty of having two manufacturing facilities so far apart. Grimme, Natalis & Co. started production in Braunschweig and sold their machines under the Brunsviga brand name (Brunsviga is the Latin name of the town of Braunschweig). They became very successful on their own.

Alas, the rest of the story is a little lot sad. Instead of changing its name and becoming an international giant like IBM (IBM originated in 1911 as CTR (the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company!), and was renamed IBM in 1924)…

The factory was nationalized during the Russian revolution and forced to close down. Towards the end of 1917, the Odhner family went back to Sweden and restarted the manufacture of their calculator under the ‘Original Odhner’ name.

Yes, yes, I know… History doesn’t do the subjunctive mood. Still, doesn’t make it any less intriguing trying to imagine what could have been ‘if’… if that event that occurred in 1917 – which changed the course of 20th century history so markedly – did not take place. The mind boggles.

The arithmometer’s story does continue after 1917 though…:

In 1924, the Russian government moved the old production facility to Moscow and commercialized [the] calculator under the Felix Arithmometer name, which went on well into the 1970s.

The ‘Felix’ was the most popular arithmometer in the USSR. Between 1929 and 1978 several million were manufactured, in more than 20 modifications.

In the second half of the century the device was manufactured with minimal cost, thus price, in mind. Though this resulted in lower quality, the simplicity of the mechanism lowered the risk of breakage considerably.

Apparently the Felix was used for the calculations for Gagarin’s trip to space, not to mention all the other scientific/engineering/military applications of the Soviet Union last century. Then came Soviet electronic calculators, Soviet cybernetics, Soviet computers (including ES EVM), and a lot more. But that’s already a different topic, not arithmometry.

Today you can find arithmometers in museums like Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum, Munich’s Deutsches Museum, and Hanover’s computing technology museum.

I also recently found out that you can find them in antique shops, and for a reasonable price :).

That’s all for today folks! Back tomorrow!…

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    iimt studies

    The history of mechanical calculators is a testament to human ingenuity in computation. From ancient abacuses to 17th-century Pascaline machines, these devices evolved, paving the way for modern computing. Their uncalculated significance lies in shaping mathematical precision, revolutionizing industries, and laying foundations for today’s digital advancements.

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