Some of the simplest computing devices made and sold are aids to counting. From ancient to early modern times, scribes performing calculations moved small stones or metal tokens along lines. More recently, mechanical counters have been widely used to count crowds and objects, and as parts of machines.
In the nineteenth century, several inventors patented mechanical counters. Patent models surviving in the Mathematics Collections at the National Museum of American History suggest the range of their concerns. Paul Stillman in 1854 and Daniel Davies and Edward Wright in 1876 patented improvements in rotary measures, such as were used in revolution counters for steam engines. In 1874, Alexander Atkinson patented a counting register to help track quantities of grain. As the amount of leisure time available to Americans increased, three inventors around 1880 saw fit to patent counters to keep score in games.
By the turn of the century, mechanical revolution counters were incorporated in laboratory apparatus, in factories using engines, in distance measures such as odometers, and in cash registers. Americans manufactured them and imported them from abroad. Government offices bought and made counters to compile statistics, and employers used them to figure out the bills and coins they needed to meet payroll. Of course counters were incorporated in a wide range of vehicles and meters. Handheld counters are used to this day to count people entering and leaving buildings and on public transit.
D. Baxandall, rev, J. Pugh, Calculating Machines and Instruments, London: Science Museum, 1975, p. 66.
Examples of counting tokens are in the Smithsonian's National Numismatics collection.
"Counters - Introduction" showing 1 items.
- This roughly built wooden and metal device is the U.S. patent model for a counter patented by Alexander P. Atkinson of Vermont, Ill., on November 7, 1871. It has an open wooden frame, with a window at the front for viewing the registering wheels. The three wheels are mounted on a crosswise shaft, along with a fourth wheel, which drives the others. Lowering a crank on the right side of the frame moves the driving wheel and the rightmost registering wheel one unit back. Returning the crank upright moves the driving but not the registering wheel.
- The wheels are wooden. The registering wheels are covered with paper bands around the edge which have the digits marked from 0 to 9. Screws are used as gear teeth in much of the mechanism. The device carries. According to the patent, the machine was intended for use in counting the number of bushels or other measures of grain that passed a given point.
- A mark on the front above the window reads: A.P. Atkinson (/) Vermont (/) Ill’s.
- Alexander P. Atkinson (1840-1906) lived in Vermont, Ill., and founded the Vermont Loan and Building Association in 1889. He remained President of that bank into the 20th century.
- Alexander P. Atkinson, “Improvement in Counting-Registers,” U.S. Patent 120,609, November 7, 1871.
- J. S. McCullough, Twelfth Annual Report of the Condition of Building, Loan and Homestead Associations Doing Business in Illinois, Springfield, Illinois: Phillips Brothers, 1903, p. 307.
- Currently not on view
- date made
- Atkinson, Alexander P.
- Atkinson, Alexander P.
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- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center