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 portable revolution counter has a handle at one end. The point at the other end is pressed against the end of the axis of the shaft whose revolutions are counted. In between are two wheels. When the lower wheel turns once, the upper wheel moves one tenth of its circumference. The edges of both wheels are divided into 100 equal parts. Each tenth division is numbered.
- The lower wheel is labeled: TENS. Its divisions are numbered clockwise from 0 to 9 on the inside, and counterclockwise from 0 to 9 on the outside. The upper wheel is labeled: HUNDREDS. Its divisions are numbered counterclockwise from 0 to 9 on the inside and clockwise from 0 to 9 on the outside. A spring disengages the wheels to allow zeroing.
- A mark on the back of one wheel reads: A. Sainte (/) A Paris.
- The end of the shaft has three attachments. The instrument also has a metal weight and fits into a velvet and satin-lined case.
- By counting the number of revolutions of the shaft of a steam engine and knowing the steam pressure and the properties of the engine, steam engineers could compute the horsepower of the engine. A. Sainte patented a device for this purpose in 1877, and exhibited it at the Exhibition Universelle held in Paris in 1878. A form of the device was still being manufactured as late as 1903.
- J. Buchetti, Engine Tests and Boiler Efficiencies, trans. Alexander Russell, Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1903, pp. 120-123.
- Science Museum, Catalogue of the Mechanical Engineering Collection of the Science Museum South Kensington, London: HIs Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1919, pp. 234-235.
- Currently not on view
- date made
- ca 1880
- A. Sainte
- ID Number
- accession number
- catalog number
- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center