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.
- To count revolutions of the shafts that ran machinery, engineers used counters like this one. The manufacturer, L. S. Starrett Company of Athol , Mass., called the device a speed indicator, although it has no timekeeping apparatus. The steel counter has a flat handle on one side and a rotating cylindrical rod on the other. In between is a flat curved case on which a dial is mounted. Pressing the rod against a rotating shaft rotates it and advances the dial. The edge of the dial is divided into 100 equal parts, which are numbered from 10 to 100 by tens. Two different nozzles fit into the far end of the cylinder. The instrument fits in a red, white, and black paper box.
- A mark on the dial reads: THE L. S. STARRETT CO. (/) ATHOL, MASS. U.S.A. Another mark there reads: PAT. APR.13.97 (/) MAR.28.05
- This counter is one of the many inventions of Laroy Starrett (1836-1922), who was born and raised on a farm in Maine. In 1880, having successfully patented and sold a meat chopper, as well as shoe studs and hooks, Starrett established a business in Athol, Mass., to sell drawing instruments and small tools. He applied for a patent for a speed indicator in 1895, and received it in 1897.
- Stafford P. Walsh of San Francisco, Ca., improved on the instrument, assigning his patent to L. S. Starrett Company when it was granted March 28, 1905. The device sold in at least three models. This is No. 104, which was particularly intended for high speeds. It was sold both directly by Starrett and through distributors of tools and steam engine equipment. This speed indicator is mentioned in Starrett catalogues into the 1930s.
- L. S. Starrett, “Speed-Indicator,” U.S. Patent 580,432, April 13, 1897.
- S. P. Walsh, “Speed-Indicator,” U.S. Patent 786,073, March 28, 1905.
- “Laroy S. Starrett,” National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 18, New York: J. T. White and Company, p. 428.
- L. S. Starrett Company, Catalogue, Athol, Mass., about 1937, p. 192.
- Currently not on view
- date made
- ca 1910
- L. S. Starrett Company
- ID Number
- catalog number
- accession number
- Data Source
- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center