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.
- During the second half of the 19th century, steam engines played a growing role in American life. This U.S. Patent Office model is for a counter used to count the number of revolutions of a steam engine. Paul Stillman (about 1811-1856) was one of three brothers who ran the New York City machine shop Novelty Iron Works. He took a particular interest in steam gauges,manometers, steam indicators, and pyrometers.
- In 1848 Stillman took out a patent for a device to measure the pressure of steam and the extent of the vacuum in steam boilers and engines. This invention won him recognition from the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. The measuring device on this instrument was analog, not digital. In 1854 he patented this digital improvement in counting machines. The following year, he patented a water gauge for steam boilers. Stillman’s son, Francis H. Stillman, also became a distinguished mechanical engineer.
- The patent model has a wooden base and sides, with a metal plate across the top with four windows in it. Underneath each window is a cogged metal wheel, with the digits from 0 to 9 around the rim. To the right, on the same shaft as the wheels, is a brass crank that fits through a fifth hole in the plate. Moving the crank forward advances the rightmost wheel by one and, if necessary, activates the carry mechanism.
- A mark on a paper tag nailed to the frame reads: Paul Stillman (/) Appa’ for Registering Numbers (/) Dec 15th 1852. A mark on the back of the base reads: 11577 (/) L 1201-1208.
- The Novelty Iron Works made and sold Stillman’s register before and after his death. An 1864 price list, included at the back of a new edition of his The Steam Engine Indicator, and the Improved Manometer Steam and Vacuum Gauges; Their Utility and Application, indicates that the registers then sold with dials in 8”, 10” and 13” sizes, and had prices of $65.00 to $75.00 apiece.
- P. Stillman, “Improvement in Counting-Machines,” U.S. Patent 11,577, August 22, 1854.
- P. Stillman, The Steam Engine Indicator, and the Improved Manometer Steam and Vacuum Gauges; Their Utility and Application, New York: Van Nostrand, 1864, pp. 82-84, 94-95. Editions of this book appeared at least as early as 1851.
- "Deceased Inventors," Scientific American, 20 #2 (Sept 20 1856), p. 11.
- “Francis H. Stillman: A Biographical Sketch,” Cassier’s Magazine, 33, #6 (April 1908), p. 684.
- Currently not on view
- date made
- Stillman, Paul
- Stillman, Paul
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- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center