Mechanical Calculators Home The Overview

The Beginnings of Calculating Devices


Early counting devices

Even before the first writing systems reached full development, counting systems and ways to record calculations were in common use. Counting and calculation by gathered stones or notches cut in wood soon evolved into more complex systems such as inscribing number symbols in clay.

On this Cuneiform Tablet is an example of the first known system of writing (and the first known written system of counting) can be seen. Cuneiform is the name of the writing system first developed in Babylonia around 3500 B.C. It spread throughout the region in the following millennia and was used to represent many different languages.

This babylonian and Egyptian mathematics site has information on early number systems and some good illustrations.

For an alternate view take a look at A brief outline of the history of Chinese mathematics.

An overview of the history of mathematics gives you a short summary of the growth of counting and mathematics with links to more detailed information.

The Abacus

The Abacus is a classic example of an early calculating device. The amazing thing about the Abacus is that it is still in common use today in many parts of the world.

Here is a good picture of an Abacus

The Abacus: The Art of Calculating with Beads is a fascinating site with a working Abacus (a java Applet) that you can play with.

The antikithera Device: An Ancient Greek Computer?

In 1901 divers working off the isle of antikythera found the remains of a clock-like mechanism 2,000 years old. The mechanism now appears to have been a device for calculating the motions of stars and planets.
derek J. de solla Price
in Scientific American, June 1959, p.60-7.
While this device may not have been a computer in our modern sense of the word, it remains a fascinating calculation device of some type. Many scholars have guessed at its purpose, but there is still insufficient evidence to be certain.

Roman Numerals

The ancient Romans created an empire around the Mediterranean Sea from about 200 bc to AD 500. Their counting system was in common use in Europe until about 1000 years ago. The Roman system of writing numbers was replaced with the Arabic numbers (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9).

Here is a summary of how the system works

The Invention of the Algorithm

Centuries after the Roman Empire began to decline in the West Arab culture began to flourish. A scholar named muhammad ibn musa al-khowarizmi produced a number of books on a variety of subjects such as astronomy, and the Hindu decimal numbering system. In this book entitled he describes a logical, step-by-step method of working on calculations that we now call an algorithm. The concept of the algorithm is vital for the history of programming and software.

The term algorithm derives from ....!!!!!!!!!!!!

...", Kitab al-jabr wa al-muqabalah ("The Book of Integration and Equation"), was translated into Latin in the 12th century and originated the term algebra."

"Another work on Hindu-Arabic numerals is preserved only in a Latin translation, Algoritmi de numero Indorum ("Al-Khwarizmi Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning"). From the title originated the term algorithm" ... britannica.com

Introduction of the Hindu-Arabic Number System to Europe

- also called the decimal system The limitations of the Roman Numerals is obvious in retrospect but it was not until the twelfth century before a new system arrived in Europe. The work of al-khwarizmi in mathematics served to introduce the Hindu number system to the Islamic world in the early ninth century. It included the idea of a symbol to represent a value of zero. With this new number system calculations became much simpler and allowed further developments in mathematics and computation that might not have occurred otherwise. When fibonacci translated al-Khwarizmi's work into Latin, this new number system became accessible to the scholars of Europe.

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