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The World's Most Magnificent Historical Calculating Machines

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Herbert Bruderer

The design of present-day electronic computers is usually not very appealing, quite in contrast to numerous magnificent mechanical calculating machines from earlier times. Today's devices are mass-produced; in the past, they were often one-of-kind objects and true works of art. Their creators were usually clockmakers. Historical automatons and robots also count as masterpieces; see my previous posts Superb Historical Robots  and The World's Most Magnificent Historical Automatons

The examples described below are all from Europe. They are taken from the books Meilensteine der Rechentechnik, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Berlin/Boston, 3rd edition, and Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham, 3rd edition 2020, 2 volumes.

In 1727, Anton Braun manufactured a great cylindrical pinwheel calculating machine (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Braun's pinwheel machine is made of brass. It is on display in Austria and is gilded.
Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, KHM Museum Association


One of the most beautiful digital calculating instruments is the stepped drum machine by Johann Helfrich Müller, built in 1784 (see Fig. 2).


Fig. 2: Müller's four-function machine has 14 digits and is able to use several number systems.
Credit: Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt


In 1796, Johann Jacob Sauter created a pinwheel machine that performs all four basic arithmetic operations (see Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Sauter's four-function machine is located in Sweden.
Credit: Gothenburg City Museum


The tiny Curta (see Fig. 4) is considered the world's smallest mechanical calculating machine and a technical marvel. It was mass-produced from 1948 to 1971.


Fig. 4: Curt Herzstark's very smart machine was made in Liechtenstein.
Credit: Sven Beham, Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum, Vaduz


Herbert Bruderer is a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zurich. More recently, he has been an historian of technology., herbert.bruderer@bluewin.


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