It is past time to acknowledge 400 years
of European computational innovation from
non-English-speaking scientists and engineers.
BY HERBERT BRUDERER
MOST HISTORIES OF computing are dominated by
Anglo-Saxon accounts in which devices and practices
from elsewhere, continental Europe in particular,
are underrepresented and in some cases omitted.
However, there is a rich history of such discoveries
and the widespread use of computational devices.
This article aims to supplement and correct widely
accepted accounts, briefly describing examples from
European countries in chronological order. Some of
these innovations are well known, but, for others, we
are no longer aware of them or they are forgotten
entirely. Electronic digital computers
abruptly replaced digital mechanical
calculating machines and analog loga-
rithmic slide rules in the 1970s. The
great calculating machines built by
Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal, and
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are not in-
cluded in this survey.
Counting boards. In the early modern
period, beautiful counting boards (see
Figure 1) were used in many city halls
throughout central Europe for addi-
tion and subtraction (using counters).
Surviving tables (16th to 18th centuries)
are today to be found mostly in muse-
ums in Switzerland and Germany. 16
Counter reckoning, also called “coun-
ter casting” and “calculating on the
lines,” was recommended by the aba-
cists and superseded by “pen reckon-
ing” supported by the algorists.
Sectors. There are uncertainties
about the origin of the sector (see Fig-
ure 2), which was designed in Italy in the
16th century, meaning Galileo Galilei
was not its inventor, as is commonly
credited. A similar analog instrument
is the versatile proportional compass
(such as for multiplication, division,
and proportion). Sectors were largely
abandoned following widespread
use of linear slide rules and circular
slide rules (both invented by William
Oughtred of England).
the U.K. and U.S.:
˽ Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres
Quevedo built two sophisticated, fully
machines in the early 20th century,
showing that “artificial intelligence”
began decades before Alan Turing and
Konrad Zuse published their research.
˽ Alan Turing’s 1936 paper on the
universal Turing machine was still
almost unknown at a major conference
on calculating machines and human
thinking in Paris in 1951.
˽ The French clockmaker Jean-Baptiste
Schwilgué designed a mechanical adder
to “control” a milling machine
for manufacturing precision gears;
his key-driven adder (1844) predates
Du Bois D. Parmelee’s device (1850).