Computer Evolution: Part 1


Greetings, fellow seekers of knowledge in the realm of computer evolution! Let us embark on a captivating exploration of the fascinating world of computing history. In this inaugural chapter of our series, “Historical Evolution of Computing,” we shall journey through time—tracing the path from finger calculations to the intricate marvels of mechanical ingenuity.

As we delve into the depths of history, we shall uncover the ingenious methods employed by our ancestors to manipulate numbers. These early techniques laid the crucial groundwork for astonishing feats of engineering and the eventual emergence of modern computers. Join us as we peel back the layers of time, revealing the gradual evolution from finger-based arithmetic to the complexity of mechanical innovations, propelling us steadfastly toward the digital era that defines our present day.

Our voyage promises not only insights but also thrills, as we unveil the brilliant minds and groundbreaking inventions that have indelibly shaped the trajectory of computing history. So, fasten your seatbelts, for together we shall journey through the corridors of time, shedding light on how innovation, step by step, paved the way for the technological wonders that grace our lives today.

Section 1: Finger Calculations and Early Counting Systems

Finger Calculations and Early Counting Systems

The history of computers takes a fascinating turn as we trace its origins back to finger calculations and early counting systems. In ancient times, humanity navigated the complexities of the world using the most fundamental resources available—fingers, pebbles, and tangible objects. This simple toolkit evolved beyond basic counting, with ingenious finger mathematics becoming a universal practice among diverse cultures. The dexterity of fingers was harnessed not merely for counting but for rudimentary mathematical operations, showcasing an early connection between human instinct and the development of mathematical thought.

Ancient civilizations extended their numerical repertoire by employing various objects like stones, sticks, and markers as tools for counting. These creative adaptations formed a miniature toolkit, enhancing their ability to manage numbers and keep track of vital information. The significance of these methods lies in their role in ancient societies, where essential skills such as counting and basic mathematics were pivotal for daily tasks. These early tools laid the groundwork for the mathematical advancements that would eventually underpin the sophisticated computers we use today. As we reflect on these humble beginnings, we acknowledge the unexpected impact of ancient ingenuity on the intricate evolution of computer technology.

Section 2: The Clever Abacus and Counting Boards: Evolution of Computers

Abacus and Counting Boards

The Abacus A Mechanical Math Marvel

The abacus is an ancient calculating tool used for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It originated in Mesopotamia and China thousands of years ago. The abacus consists of a rectangular wooden frame with rows of wires or rods. Beads are strung on the wires and can be slid back and forth to represent numbers and perform calculations.

To use an abacus, each bead on the upper deck represents 5 units, while beads on the lower deck represent 1 unit. By lining up beads in the proper columns and placing them in different positions, mathematical operations like carrying and borrowing can be mimicked. Skilled abacus users can perform calculations incredibly fast, even faster than with a calculator!

The abacus transformed mathematical calculation. It served as an essential calculating tool for millennia before the emergence of electronic devices. It allowed large numbers to be manipulated more easily and complex calculations to be carried out efficiently. The abacus paved the way for future advancements in mathematics and computation.

▶ Video1: Learn to use the abacus(soroban), Japanese | Youtube channel ☞ リナちゃん Rina-chan

Counting Boards Mathematical Art

Counting boards were artistic wooden or stone tablets used for calculations requiring counters or markers. They originated in medieval Europe and featured carved designs, lines, squares, and circles. Calculations were performed by placing counters on the board and moving them based on the layout.

Elaborate counting boards displayed geometrical artwork. But the designs also served a mathematical purpose – counters could be placed and moved from one section to another to help with adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Counting boards made arithmetic entertaining and hands-on.

Counting boards transformed computation into beautiful works of art. They allowed mathematicians to visualize numerical operations and calculations through designs, making math more intuitive. This innovative combination of art and arithmetic paved the way for the development of more practical mathematical tools and calculating devices.

So in summary, the ingenuity of the abacus and counting boards helped shape modern mathematics and computing. These ancient tools demonstrated how creativity and innovation can unlock new ways of working with numbers and performing complex calculations.

▶ Video2: The Salamis Tablet – Calculating on a Counting board | Youtube channel ☞ Jens Puhle

Section 3: Early Mechanical Calculators (19th to 20th Century)

Napier’s Bones: A Mechanical Aid for Arithmetic (1617)

Napier's Bones
Computer Evolution

John Napier was a famous mathematician in the early 1600s. He invented a tool called “Napier’s Bones” to make multiplication and division easier.

Napier’s Bones were a set of rods or strips made of wood or other materials. Each rod had numbers divided into sections. The rods were arranged in certain ways to help with multiplying and dividing numbers.

To multiply, the rods represented the digits in the numbers being multiplied. When arranged correctly, the intersections of the rods gave the partial products. These were added up to get the total product.

For division, the rods represented the dividend and divisor. They helped calculate the quotients and remainders.

Napier’s Bones made it easier to do complex math. They were very useful for astronomy, navigation, engineering, and other areas needing a lot of math.

Using the rods was faster and had fewer errors than doing long calculations by hand. Napier’s invention was a major step forward in tools to simplify math.

Later new tools like calculators replaced Napier’s Bones. But they showed the importance of finding practical ways to make math easier. Napier’s work paved the way for the modern computing devices we use today.

In summary, Napier created an innovative tool that simplified difficult multiplication and division. Napier’s Bones made complex math easier and faster. This aided the progress of mathematical tools that shape how we solve problems now.

▶ Video1.1: Napier’s Bones Multiplication (243 x 6) | Youtube channel ☞ ScienceWorld

▶ Video1.2: Napier’s Bones Multiplication (71 859 x 49) | channel ☞ ScienceWorld

▶Video1.3: Napier’s Bones Multiplication ( 972 / 27 ) | channel ☞ ScienceWorld

Schickard’s Early Calculating Machine (1623)

Schickard's Early Calculating Machine

In 1623, German astronomer Wilhelm Schickard designed an intriguing mechanical device—one of the earliest prototypes of a calculating machine. Schickard’s machine could perform basic arithmetic operations, automating tedious manual calculations.

This compact device used a set of movable metal wheels and gears. Numbers were represented by the rotation of the wheels. By turning appropriate wheels, the machine could add and subtract up to six-digit numbers displayed on revolving Napier’s bones. Results appeared in a small window.

Though only two prototypes were built, Schickard’s novel invention demonstrated the potential for machines to calculate. It paved the way for more complex mechanical calculators that would follow, moving towards automation of mathematical processes—a pivotal step in computing history.

▶Video2.1: Schiccard machine: multiplying by two digits | channel ☞ E. Shiryaev

Pascal’s Calculating Machine (1642)

Pascal's Calculating Machine

In 1642, French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal designed a calculating machine to help his father with tax computations. Pascal’s device built upon previous efforts, incorporating gears and wheels to handle addition and subtraction automatically.

Numbers were input using dials, enabling carrying over digits between positions. After setting the dials, turning a handle performed the calculations, with results appearing in windows on the top. This eliminated the need for tedious manual re-totaling.

Only a few prototypes were produced during Pascal’s lifetime. Yet his pioneering work demonstrated that complex arithmetic could be mechanized, inspiring future inventors. The principles behind Pascal’s calculator led to many improved mechanical calculators in Europe and beyond.

▶Video3.1: How the Pascaline Works | channel ☞ Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner (Late 17th Century)

Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German polymath who made important contributions to several fields, including mathematics, philosophy, logic, and mechanical calculation. Some key facts about Leibniz and his invention of the stepped reckoner, an early mechanical calculator:

Leibniz lived from 1646 to 1716 and was a prominent figure in the philosophy of rationalism. He co-invented calculus independently of Isaac Newton and made strides in formal logic.
In 1671, Leibniz designed a calculating machine called the stepped reckoner, considered the first mechanical calculator capable of multiplication and division as well as addition and subtraction.
The stepped reckoner used a stepped metal drum with teeth representing decimal digits. Users turned a crank to align the teeth and perform calculations through a complex gear mechanism.
The device employed Leibniz’s pioneering work on binary numbers and could represent all numbers using only the digits 1 and 0. This binary system is the foundation of modern computing.

Though difficult to construct, the stepped reckoner design was widely copied and improved upon for over two centuries. It was a major advancement from previous calculators limited to addition and subtraction.
Leibniz’s theoretical and mechanical work on calculation marked huge leaps forward in the history of computing. The stepped reckoner helped set the stage for later mechanical calculators and eventually digital computers.
So in summary, Gottfried Leibniz was the inventor of the stepped reckoner, an early and influential mechanical calculating machine that introduced several innovations that were foundational to the evolution of computing technology. His contributions helped bridge the gap from purely manual calculation to automated computation.

▶Video4.1: Stepped Drum Principle: Leibniz Invention | channel ☞ calculatryx

▶Video4.2 Leibniz calculating machine: (222 x 12) | channel ☞ Leibniz Universität Hannover

In the video you provided, the calculation operation used is multiplication. The example demonstrated is the multiplication of 222 by 12 using the Leibniz calculating machine. The machine allows for efficient and streamlined multiplication by using a crank to enter the numbers simultaneously and then perform the multiplication operation mechanically.

Arithmomètre de Thomas de Colmar (1820)

Arithmomètre de Thomas de Colmar

One of the pioneering mechanical calculators was the Arithmomètre, invented by the French inventor Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar in 1820. This remarkable device was among the first commercially successful calculators and remained in production for over seven decades. It employed a complex system of gears, levers, and rotating cylinders to perform fundamental arithmetic operations, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

The Arithmomètre featured a large mechanical display for ease of reading and was remarkably accurate, capable of calculations up to 10 decimal places. Its modular design made it easy to repair and maintain, making it a favorite choice for businesses and governments. Later iterations introduced advanced features like a multiplication table and a carriage return mechanism, marking a significant step in the evolution of mechanical calculation.

▶Video5.1 Arithmomètre  Addition / Substraction / Multiplication | channel ☞ Arithmomètre

▶Video5.2 How the Arithmometer Works | channel ☞ Arithmomètre

Comptometer Dorr Felt (Late 19th Century)


In the late 19th century, Dorr Eugene Felt introduced the Comptometer, a mechanical calculator with a keyboard featuring rows of keys representing digits from 0 to 9. This device found widespread use in businesses for its speed and accuracy in calculations. Although the Comptometer was eventually replaced by electronic calculators in the mid-20th century, it holds a special place in the history of early mechanical computing.

▶Video6.2 How the Comptometer Works | channel ☞ MechanicalComputing

The Walther Calculating Machine Curt Herzstark (1938)


In 1938, the German engineer Curt Herzstark introduced the Walther calculating machine, which utilized a system of rotating disks to perform various calculations, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentage calculations, and square roots. Equipped with a keyboard and mechanical display, the Walther calculating machine found applications in offices, laboratories, and factories worldwide, enduring until the advent of electronic calculators. Today, it stands as a relic of computing history, showcasing the progression of early mechanical computation.

▶Video7.1 Walther Calculating Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, Division | channel ☞Jens Puhle

Computer Evolution: Babbage’s Difference Engine (Early 19th Century)

Babbage’s Difference Engine

Charles Babbage introduced the Difference Engine, a pioneering mechanical device in the realm of computer evolution, aimed at approximating complex polynomials and mathematical expressions representing relationships between variables, such as range and air pressure.

Furthermore, Babbage’s machine also handled challenging computations of logarithmic and trigonometric equations—tasks that were arduous to perform by hand. Starting in 1823, he dedicated two decades to constructing nearly 25,000 components, ultimately resulting in a machine that weighed 15 tons. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, he eventually abandoned the project.

However, a turning point occurred in 1991 when historians brought Babbage’s visionary concept to life, successfully constructing a functional Difference Engine based on his meticulous designs. This monumental achievement underscored Babbage’s exceptional innovation and foresight.

So, the key points are that Charles Babbage invented the Difference Engine, a mechanical device for mathematical calculations, and in 1991, historians built a working version of it based on his designs, highlighting his pioneering work in the field of computing.

▶Video8.1 The Babbage Engine: Complexiest Mechanical | channel ☞ CrushedBoxes


Consequently, this marks the culmination of the opening phase of our exploration into the annals of computer evolution! Transitioning from basic finger calculations to groundbreaking mechanical marvels, we’ve traversed inventive methods that formed the bedrock of modern computation.

Anticipate the imminent chapters, where we will plunge into the enthralling evolution from mechanical to electronic computing. Accompany us as we chart the captivating course of how these initial strides flourished into the sophisticated computers and algorithms that form the foundation of our contemporary digital domain. The odyssey continues!

6 thoughts on “Computer Evolution: Part 1 – From Fingers to Mechanical Marvels”
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