Tag Archives: surprise

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.

Read on: A bit of subjunctive mood…

Formula 1 on ice.

I’m not sure who exactly came up with the idea, but the first I heard about “Ferrari F1 on a ski slope” was about half a year ago. The very thought of driving a racing car on the ice and snow is so ridiculous that we just had to do it – that’s how we and Ferrari roll :)

This is what the event looked like at the Livigno ski resort at an altitude of 1,800 m, in front of a huge crowd of skiers, local residents, tourists and racing fans.


Read on: A little surprise for F1 aficionados…

Flickr photostream

Instagram photostream

Crossing the Alps in a helicopter.

In a follow-up to my plane trip, this post is about my recent jaunt in a helicopter.

I had really hoped our plane could land closer to our destination, which was deep in the mountains, but, unfortunately, the Alps were covered in clouds, and we weren’t allowed to fly to Samedan (am I the only one who hadn’t heard of this place before?) So we were diverted to Malpensa airport, Milan. This white helicopter came to Malpensa to collect us.

Which came as a huge surprise to me. Usually, helipads are either located outside international airports, or miles from the terminals, runways and taxi tracks. However, this time the helicopter landed close to the civil air terminal – in the photos above you can just make out the plane tails with the logos of Emirates (A-380), Lufthansa, Alitalia, Swiss Air, etc.

Then there was the most curious part of all – takeoff.

Read on: taxi like a regular plane…

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Cracking the code of Chinese tickets.

Hi folks!

For some reason I’m not fully aware of, I tend to keep conference ID badges, and sometimes also tickets to the various tourist attractions I get to see around the world. This hoarding is getting out of hand – I have a big box of ID badges in the corner of my office, and it’s starting to overflow.

How a New York Times journalist who recently interviewed me reacted to them I think sums up the problem: “What is THAT?” he said, pointing at the bulging box, perplexed :). Must get down to some feng shui soon. It’s not as if I’m going to go through them all one day – pics are much better for trips down memory lane… But I digress – before even beginning!…

…So, to begin… During my recent hidden China vacation, I amassed quite a few entrance tickets to national parks, nature reserves, historical places of interest and other attractions.

At first these look like nothing special – just the usual slips of paper or thin card. But when you have a closer look…


Here are my findings in my attempt to crack the code of Chinese entry tix:

Read on: Quadrillion!…

Austrian plate – in Yunnan State.

On my recent travels I came across a van with Austrian plates in the parking lot of the hotel I was staying at. So what, right? Thing is, the hotel was in the city of Lijiang in the Yunnan Province of the People’s Republic of China, here!



Maybe this isn’t quite so mind-blowing as, say, a couple of German Merc jeeps in Australia, but all the same – not what you’d expect.

The van was accompanying bikers from Austria, who were real interesting guys – motorbiking right round the globe! We had a good long friendly chinwag, so here’s a plug for their thing: site, blog. Why not?

Turned out they know all about KL, having been our customers for years! Big thanks!

But what, you might be thinking, brought me to such a distant and remote neck of the global woods?

Read on: business matters as always…

Unexpected and extremely inexplicable sightings.

What are the chances of Hell ever freezing over, or, in the meantime, a cat surviving a short stay there? That’s right, slim at best.

Now, I would have thought there’d be similarly slim chances of seeing a car with Russian ’41’ plates – that’s Kamchatka folks, far-eastern Russia, next to Japan – on the cobbled roads of the Kaliningrad region – right at the other end of the world’s longest country some dozen time zones away. But I was recently proved wrong. Extremely unlikely sightings do occur…:

'41'; must be on the run’41’; must be on the run

Once I saw some motorbikes with German plates on the island of Crete. More than 1000km from home! EH?

And just occasionally UK plates – white on the front, yellow on the back – are to be seen in Moscow. That sure is some distance to cover.

Surprised? Intrigued? Impressed? You… shouldn’t be…

…For this is what I saw the other day:

'Extreme Duty Winch' – on an extreme duty Benz!‘Extreme Duty Winch’ – on an extreme duty Benz!

Yes folks, these photos were taken last week – not in, say, Saxony, Germany – but in Sydney, Australia! These Merc G-Classes were parked up outside the Shangri-La hotel there. Maybe Hell will one day freeze over – or at least fit central heating in the bed & breakfasts there to keep visiting felines warm…

You've Come a Long Way, Baby!You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

So, how on earth – or in (freezing) Hell – did they get there?

On a ship: from Italy via the Suez canal, across the Indian Ocean, around Australia and to Sydney?

Or overland: via Poland, Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Papua, and then on a ferry to northern Oz, and then cross-country-desert?

Or maybe the more boring route: via Greece, Turkey, Syria (hmmm, maybe not), Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and so on?

// Or maybe they were just playing silly beggars and put German plates on locally purchased and registered Mercedes? Naah, surely not. The customized bits and bobs added to these vehicles (e.g., the contraption on one of the roofs), all that road (desert?) grime… Naah.

So how did they get here? A mystery. What do you think?  Any ideas?

G’day maties!…