Calculating MachinesStepped Drum Calculating Machines
The distinguished mathematician and philosopher Gottfried William Leibniz started thinking about stepped drum calculating machines in the 1670s, and an eighteenth century instrument built on his design survives. However, it was the French insurance executive Charles Xavier Thomas (1785-1870) who invented and sold the first commercially successful calculating machine. Proposed in 1820, it would sell successfully from about 1850.
Thomas’s calculating machine, which he dubbed the arithmometer, had cylindrical brass drums, each with nine teeth that varied in length. If a setting lever was at “9”, it engaged nine teeth, at 8, eight teeth and so forth. This stepped drum mechanism would be modified over time, with different metals used for the stepped drums, much of the drum cut away, and different arrangement of the teeth on the gears. Nonetheless, the stepped drum survived as part of some calculating machines as long as they were manufactured.
"Calculating Machines - Stepped Drum Calculating Machines" showing 1 items.
- This is the oldest surviving example of the type of stepped drum calculating machine constructed under patents obtained by the Frenchman Charles Xavier Thomas of the French town of Colmar in 1820. Machines that could do arithmetic automatically were built as mechanical marvels in the 1600s on the design of mathematicians such as Blaise Pascal and Gottfried Leibniz. However, it was only with the introduction and improvement of the machine of Thomas that calculating machines became part of the world of practical calculation. The instrument was made for Thomas by the Parisian mechanician and clockmaker Devrine. Thomas arithmometers, as the machines were called, became the first commercially successful calculating machines.
- The brass machine fits snugly in a wooden case covered with red leather and lined with green velvet. It has three levers that are moved back to enter digits on brass stepped drums. A fourth lever, to the left of these, is labeled Multiplication, and used to determine the number of times the stepped drums rotate. Hence in this early machine, Thomas attempted direct multiplication by a single digit. This feature would not be successfully used in calculating machines until the late 19th century.
- In back of the digit levers is a movable carriage with a row of six pairs of windows. Beneath each pair is a button. The levers are labeled: Unités, Dixaines, and Centaines. The pairs of windows are labeled: Unité, Dixaine, Centaine, Mille, Dix Mille, and Cent Mille.
- Beneath each window is a numeral wheel. Two sets of digits are marked on each wheel, one in black and the other in red. Shifting a lever on the right of the carriage to “add e multiplication” opens six windows to show in black digits the result of addition and multiplication problems. In the other positions, six windows open to show in red digits the result of division and subtraction problems. Beneath the windows are thumbscrews for zeroing the result digits one at a time. There is no revolution register.
- Pulling a red ribbon operates the machine. Pulling a shorter ribbon attached to the front assists in removing it from the case. Later Thomas machines would be crank-operated. The lid of the case has a brass handle, lock, and key. Part of the right side of the case turns down to allow for the motion of the carriage.
- A mark on the left of the levers reads: Arithmomètre (/) du Chr. Thomas de Colmar (/) Par Brevet d’invention (/) Devrine fecit. A mark on a button at the front of the machine reads: Régulateur. A mark on the top of the lid reads: ARITHMOMÊTRE (/) De MR. LE CHER THOMAS DE COLMAR.
- The machine is not identical to that shown in the drawings of Thomas’s 1820 patent. It resembles the drawings made in 1821 for a report by Hoyau published in 1822.
- Stephen Johnson, “Making the Arithmometer Count,” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 52, 1997, 12–21.
- “Rapport fait par M. Francoueur. . .,” Bulletin de la Société d'Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, 21, 1822, pp. 33–36.
- Charles-Xavier Thomas, “1420,” 18 Novembre 1820. This is the number of Thomas’s 1820 French patent.
- Hoyau, “Description d’une machine à calculer nommée Arithmomètre. . . ,” Bulletin de la Société d'Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, 21, 1822, pp. 355–365.
- Currently not on view
- date made
- ca 1820
- Thomas, Charles Xavier
- Thomas, Charles Xavier
- ID Number
- catalog number
- accession number
- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center