Modern calculators can be held in the palm of the hand of a child. But when the first calculating machine was invented in 1642, some 360 years ago, it was a huge box, full of gears supported by a table. It only carried out sums and subtractions, but caused astonishment. Firstly, because the closest thing there had been to a calculating machine, up until the 17th century, had been the abacus. Secondly, because its inventor, the Frenchman Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), had constructed it when he was very young, between nineteen and twenty one years of age.

His objective was to assist his father Étienne, a famous mathematician in France. Years later Pascal himself would become an important mathematician as well as a writer and respected philosopher. The pascaline (the name given by him to the calculator) had as its predecessor the abacus, which was not truly a machine, but really an instrument created some three to four thousand years previously in Asia, which allowed quick calculations made through handling beads or dried seeds, which slide along parallel rods within a wooden rectangle. Incredibly efficient when one acquires practice in its use, the abacus is still used today in various Asiatic regions.

The problem is that the least distraction leads to an error. On the other hand, the pascaline is a mechanical piece of apparatus with six indented wheels, each one with numerals from 0 to 9. With this it was possible to sum up three numbers of a sum at the one time, up to a value of 999,999. There are reports that, twenty years before, in 1623, the German Wilhelm Schickard had created a similar instrument. Destroyed afterwards in a fire, there is no example or illustration to prove the story. Pascal made his machine without knowing about Schickard’s attempt.

Today it is on exhibition at the museum Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, in Paris, and still works. Almost thirty years after the pascaline, in 1671, the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz improved upon Pascal’s calculator: as well as adding and subtracting, the new machine could multiply and divide. The first “pocket” calculator, with transistor circuits weighing 1 kilogram and costing US$ 150, only appeared during 1970 in the United States. Within a short time its popularity made the price and the weight fall dramatically. Today it is possible to purchase a calculator for less than R$ 5,00 and weighing only 60 grams (with battery).

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