Adding Machine

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Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician who lived in the 1600s. He is most known for his work in geometry and statistics but is included here for building the first non-abacus adding machine.

Going back briefly, the abacus dates back to at least 300BC. Our earliest cutoff date for innovations is the printing press or the abacus would be included. It is so fast that, until modern computers, people claimed it possible to calculate faster on an abacus than a machine.

Despite the abacus, in the 1640s, Pascal invented a machine called the “Pascaline,” one of the earliest known non-abacus adding machines. German mathematician William Schickard is said to have invented a similar machine earlier, in 1623, though the claim is iffy.

By 1652, Pascal built about 50 Pascaline’s but the value of the adding machine never outweighed the cost. It was simply less expensive to have people do the work than the machine. Furthermore, due to a glitch in French currency at the time — which used a different base system — the machine never quite functioned as intended.

Pascal’s interest in arithmetic might be due to his father’s job as a tax collector.

Pascal’s adding machine demonstrated that machines could do work previously done only by people. While the abacus had a similar function, it still relied on people. Pascal’s adding machine was the first of its kind.

It was also extraordinarily expensive and hiring clerks to compute figures cost far less than a Pascaline. Therefore, very few were manufactured or sold but the core idea of a machine that thinks — that can add and subtract — eventually blossomed into first mechanical computers and later electronic computers.

Later in life, Pascal also tried to create a perpetual motion machine, a machine that outputs more energy than is input. That never succeeded — probably because physicists show it is impossible — but, while experimenting, Pascal invented the roulette wheel.

After a life inventing two machines plus geometrical theorems still in use today, Pascal died of stomach cancer in 1662 at the age of 39.

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