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 small U.S. Patent Office model for a counter has the shape of an old-fashioned door key, with a dial protruding from the middle. A screw attached to a nozzle links to a shaft and rotates the dial. The edge of this dial is divided into 100 parts, which are labeled by 10s. A fixed pointer screwed to the middle of the dial indicates its reading. A second nozzle is tied to the object. The object illustrates the patent for “An Improvement in Rotary Devices” (#182,177) taken out by Daniel Davis Jr. and Edward Wright on September 12, 1876. There is no patent model tag.
- Daniel Davis Jr. (1844-1919) was the son of Massachusetts instrument maker Daniel Davis (1813-1887). The elder Davis retired from Boston to his home town of Princeton, Mass., in 1852 to farm. Some time after 1870, the younger Daniel Davis moved to Worcester, where he worked as a brass founder and took out a patent for water filters with one Benaiah Fitts.
- Edward Wright was born in New York around 1834. He patented an improvement in pickers for looms in September 1867. He received another patent for improvement in self-acting mules for spinning in February 1870. In September 1876 Wright and Davis received the U.S. patent for improvement in rotary measures for which this object is the model.. Both men were then living in Worcester.
- Daniel Davis Jr. and Benaiah Fitts, "Improvement in Water-Filters," U.S. Patent 146442, January 13, 1874.
- Edward Wright, “Improvement in Pickers for Looms.” U.S. Patent 69880, 16 September 1867.
- Edward Wright, “Improvement in Self-Acting Mules for Spinning.” U.S. Patent 99511, 1 February 1870.
- Edward Wright and Daniel Davis Jr., “Improvement in Rotary Measures.” U.S. Patent 182177, 12 September 1879.
- U.S. Census, 1860, 1870, 1880.
- Web site of the Princeton, Mass., Historical Society, http://www.princetonmahistory.org/people-groups/residents/daniel-davis
- Currently not on view
- date made
- date patented
- Davis, Jr., Daniel
- Wright, Edward
- ID Number
- catalog number
- accession number
- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center