The First Calculator

calc_ti25001_1

Simple question:  what was the release date of the first device that could do calculations?

I intentionally specify calculating device instead of “computer” since simpler such calculators predate and ultimately gave rise to computers computers (and robots and AI).  And I specify “device” since being a calculator used to be a job for humans like an accountant or bookkeeper before machines took over.  Take your time.  You have 1hr of Jeopardy think music in the video below.  Just remember to answer in the form of a question.

This is a good job interview question.  It’s seemingly innocuous, vague and open-ended enough that any reply will give a lot of information about how an individual hears, interprets and analyzes questions.  It not only tells how well a person can think on their feet on unexpected and potentially profound questions, but also how broadly read/educated they are and how artfully they can craft a cogent response.

A bad answer would be a long time ago.  A better answer would be one that cites the date of a particular calculating machine like the ENIAC.  The best answer would be to demonstrate intellectual curiosity and rigor by flipping the script and asking one to define terms (e.g. what exactly do you mean by “calculator”) and create an interesting conversation that allows you to demonstrate your depth and breath of knowledge within a framework of a concise directied narrative.


 

First, what is a device that can calculate?  Most abstractly, it is something that can take information in some representation (data input), transform by some useful rules (computation) and return new information as a result (data output).  Although today we are most familiar with computers performing these tasks, nothing in the definition above requires electricity or general programability.

In fact, the first calculators were mechanical instead of electrical, used gears instead of digital logic gates to perform mathematical operations and were not programmable (eg only performed fixed operations).  Wilhelm Schickard is credited with inventing the first documented mechanical calculator in 1642 with mathematician Blaise Pascal following a few decades later.  Mechanical calculators peaked 1900-1960s before being quickly replaced by electronic calculators with the release of TI-2500 pictured at the top of this post (and similar business/consumer models) in the early 1970s.

Mechanical_calculators_KeyboardsVarious desktop mechanical calculators used in the office from 1851 onwards. Each one has a different user interface. This picture shows clockwise from top left: An Arithmometer (1820), A Comptometer, A Dalton adding machine (1902), a Sundstrand and an Odhner Arithmometer. – Wikipedia.org

Going back to the definition of a computation device above, we could also include devices such as pebbles, bones and the abacus which were used over 4,000 years ago.  Weaving looms, clocks and other mechanical devices also took input data (punch cards or gear configurations) and produced meaningful output data (woven patterns or time).

antikythera_originalOf note was the Antikythera Mechanism, a complex device of 30 broze gears that calculated the positions of astronomical positions and eclipses.  It was discovered in 1900-1901 off the coast of Greece and dates to 100-150 BC, possibly 205 BC.  Once this technology was lost, this complex calculation using gears wasn’t rediscovered until 1500 years later in Europe.

And, being a FLL blog, no discussion would be complete without a version of the Antikythera built using LEGOs by Andrew Carol, an Apple engineer.  FastCo has a great article on this LEGO replica.

Speaking of Greeks, they stand out as incredibly prolific inventors over 2,000 years ago (e.g. catapult, siren, soldering iron, flame throwers, pin hole cameras, syringes, forcepts, odometers, thermometers, pistons, pulleys, cranes):

 

 

 

 

 

 

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