Articles on calculating devices in the Whipple's collections

The articles in this section explain various aspects of the history of calculating devices. Tools and instruments are integral features of the history of mathematics, aiding numerous pursuits such as navigation, description of the natural world, and regulation of commerce. Use the links below or in the menu to the left to select an article.

Facit CA1-13 desk-top electromechanical calculator
Image 1 Facit CA1-13 desk-top electromechanical calculator c.1957 (Wh.6148). Image © the Whipple Museum.
discover gallery
Image 2 Calculators case in the Whipple Museum discover gallery Image © the Whipple Museum.

A brief history of calculation. From the abacus to the EDSAC computer, humans have used physical apparatuses for counting to simplify and solve mathematical problems. Here you can read a brief overview of how certain devices developed over time and continued to be useful despite apparently superior developments.

Tables. Perhaps the most important 'devices' for calculation throughout human history, mathematical tables standardise values for computation and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and applications.

The sector. All sorts of devices for measuring, weighing, and telling time were used in antiquity, and the revival of astronomy in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages linked classical knowledge to developments from Arabic societies. New instruments came with new theories, most notably the sector, championed by Galileo.

John Napier. In the early 17th century, Scottish mathematician John Napier introduced the logarithm to speed up calculation by hand, along with other means of representing multiplication problems including the numbered rods or 'bones' for which he became known. These developments laid the foundation for mechanising calculation.

Slide rules. Undoubtedly the most widely used mathematical instrument from their invention in the late 17th century to the 1970s, slide rules are seen today as historic curiosities. But in their time they took on numerous shapes and were understood as 'universal' tools with limitless applications to any domain in which proportions and scaling were used.

Mechanical calculation. 18th-century Enlightenment fascination with clockwork generated designs for automatic calculating devices, many of which were built and some of which provided templates for later mass-produced machines. Though few of these early devices survive, later manifestations allow us to see what the actual practice of calculating was like.

Charles Babbage. Acknowledged as the first architect of a general-purpose computer, Charles Babbage's first foray into automation was spurred by the problem of efficiently producing reliable sets of mathematical tables. He worked, unsuccessfully during his lifetime, to apply principles of computational labour division for humans to automated machines.

Pocket devices. While the 20th century saw grand designs for general-purpose computers, it also saw principles of precision engineering applied to earlier designs, allowing them to become portable.

The EDSAC. The Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator was one of the earliest general-purpose computers. Built for Cambridge academics and students to run problems on, it was one of the first computers to be made a community resource.

Handheld electronic calculators. Developed in the 1970s, handheld electronic calculators facilitated some essential advances in the history of computing, including the development of microprocessors and freestanding exchangeable software.

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