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.
- In the spring of 1877, to pay the interest on the public debt, the state of Virginia passed a law suggested by State Senator Samuel H. Moffett of Harrisonburg. Every liquor dealer and saloon in the state was to be equipped with a so-called Moffett register to record sales of liquor, allowing state tax collectors to know taxes due. This is an example of a Moffett register. Moffett and Otis Dean of Richmond received a patent for the device in 1877.
- The counter has a black iron frame with a glass window in the front and a brass crank in the back. Two holes in the base allow the register to be fixed to a counter. Under the window are six dials, each of which can read any digit from 0 to 9. The dials are marked according to the decimal place of the digit. Turning the crank at the back an entire turn rings a bell and increases the setting on the tens dial (the rightmost). On the back is a covered keyhole. The case is locked and there is no key.
- A mark inside the window above the dials reads: MOFFETT REGISTER. A mark on the outside of the front reads: ALCOHOLIC LIQUORS. Another mark there reads: No (/) 2872. The dials are labeled from left to right: 1 MILLION, 100 THOUSAND, 10 THOUSAND, 1 THOUSAND, 1 HUNDRED, TEN.
- By 1878, use of the Moffett register reportedly was in decline.
- Samuel H. Moffett and Otis Dean, “Improvement in Alarm-registers for Use in Bar-rooms, &c.,” U.S. Patent 194,951, September 4, 1877.
- “Virginia,” Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1877, ns, vol. 2, New York: Appleton, 1890., pp. 758-762.
- “Virginia’s Novel Liquor Tax,” New York Tribune, September 15, 1877, p. 2.
- “Decline of the Moffett Register,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 3, 1878, p. 6.
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- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center