Computing Profession

Original Roman Pocket Calculators are Extremely Rare

Herbert Bruderer

As far as we know, only three or four original specimens of the Roman hand abacus have survived. Three are made of bronze and are located in Aosta (Italien), Paris and Rome (see Figs. 1–3).


Fig. 1: Front side of a Roman abacus, Aosta (original). The numerical symbols are missing.
This object stems from a gravesite, from which the other objects allow dating to the 1st century AD.
Credit: Regione Autonoma Valle d’Aosta, Assessorato del Turismo, Sport, Commercio, Agricoltura e Beni culturali, Dipartimento soprintendenza per i beni e le attività culturali, Archivi Patrimonio archeologico. Picture: L. Berriat.
Fig. 2: Front side of a Roman abacus, Paris (original).
The numerical symbols are difficult to recognize. The slot at the far right consists of a single piece.
Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France
Fig. 3: Front side of a Roman abacus, Rome (original).
This pocket calculator is made of bronze. The slot at the far right consists of a single piece.
Credit: Museo nazionale romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome

A fourth device is known to exist, but no one knows where this is. It is made of ivory, see In Search of A Rare Roman Pocket Calculator | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM


But how does one calculate with Roman numerals? See


Bruderer, Herbert: Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham, 3rd edition 2020, 2 volumes, 2113 pages, 715 illustrations, 151 tables, translated from the German by John McMinn,


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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