The World's First Mechanical Calculator Was Invented By Mathematician Pascal
Dhir Acharya - Jan 13, 2020
The machine is called Pascal's calculator, the Pascaline, or the Arithmetique. Originally, it could handle 5 digits but was then upgraded to 6 and 8 digits.
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Blaise Pascal was the most celebrated physicist and mathematician as well as a religious philosopher in France. He worked on projective geometry and conic sections, he laid the grounds for the theory of probability. In 1642, when Pascal was 18 years old, he invented and built the world’s first digital calculator to help his father, who was working as a tax collector, with tedious tax accounting.
The device was dubbed Pascal’s calculator, or the Arithmetique, or the Pascaline. Pascal continued to improve his design over the next several years and built a total of 50 Pascaline machines.
The first Pascaline could handle 5-digit numbers only, but Pascal then developed 6 and 8-digit versions of this machine.
The calculator consisted of metal wheel dials that people could turn to the specific numbers with a stylus, and the answer would appear in the boxes in the top of the machine. In terms of the look, the Pascaline was a box made of brass that measured 3.5 mm in length, 125 mm in width, and 75 mm in thickness. The calculator was compact enough for portability. On top of the machine, there was a row of eight dials that were movable, displaying numbers from 0 to 9. That meant people can add up to eight figures in a column.
There was also a right-hand dial representing deniers, another one representing sous, and there was a remainder for France’s currency at the time, livres. The machines could also handle pounds, shilling, and pence.
The Pascaline supported Maths calculations including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It was difficult to conduct division and multiplication, by repeated subtraction and repeated addition, respectively. For instance, to conduct the 1234 x 567 calculation, we would have to register 1234 for 7 times using the dial on the right, then register 1234 for 6 times using the next dial, and enter 1234 for 5 times with the next dial. Then we need to pull the handle and the machine would provide the answer. The same techniques are applied in modern computers.
However, the design had some issues due to the French currency back then. A livre had 20 sols and a sol had 12 deniers. This system was maintained in France till 1799 but a system in Britain that had similar multiples remained till 1971. The technical problems were much harder to solve so that the machine could work with this division of the livre into 240 compared with 100.
Pascal tried to put the Pascaline into production to earn profit Though it didn’t turn out successful, it resulted in many units of the machine remaining to this day. The difference between them is that their accumulators have different numbers of digits and there are small differences in their internal mechanisms too. The models that survived until today don’t function well. And the machines are quite delicate, which may give erroneous results if users aren’t careful with them. For instance, some of them produce extra carrys in certain digits in the accumulator if they are knocked or bumped even just a little.