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Computing History Beyond the U.K. and U.S.: Selected Landmarks from Continental Europe

handwriting automaton

An early programmable handwriting automaton with internal mechanics built by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in the 18th century; the text (up to 37 characters) is stored on cam plates.

Credit: A Blog to Watch

Most histories of computing are dominated by Anglo-Saxon accounts in which devices and practices from elsewhere, continental Europe in particular, are underrepresented and in some cases omitted. However, there is a rich history of such discoveries and the widespread use of computational devices. This article aims to supplement and correct widely accepted accounts, briefly describing examples from European countries in chronological order. Some of these innovations are well known, but, for others, we are no longer aware of them or they are forgotten entirely. Electronic digital computers abruptly replaced digital mechanical calculating machines and analog logarithmic slide rules in the 1970s. The great calculating machines built by Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are not included in this survey.

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17th Century

Counting boards. In the early modern period, beautiful counting boards (see Figure 1) were used in many city halls throughout central Europe for addition and subtraction (using counters). Surviving tables (16th to 18th centuries) are today to be found mostly in museums in Switzerland and Germany.16 Counter reckoning, also called "counter casting" and "calculating on the lines," was recommended by the abacists and superseded by "pen reckoning" supported by the algorists.


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