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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: September 2010
  • First published in: 1889

4 - Excerpt from “Passages from the Life of a Philosopher”:—




“Oh no! we never mention it,

Its name is never heard.”

Calculating Machines comprise various pieces of mechanism for assisting the human mind in executing the operations of arithmetic. Some few of these perform the whole operation without any mental attention when once the given numbers have been put into the machine.

Others require a moderate portion of mental attention: these latter are generally of much simpler construction than the former, and it may also be added, are less useful.

The simplest way of deciding to which of these two classes any calculating machine belongs is to ask its maker—Whether, when the numbers on which it is to operate are placed in the instrument, it is capable of arriving at its result by the mere motion of a spring, a descending weight, or any other constant force? If the answer be in the affirmative, the machine is really automatic; if otherwise, it is not self-acting.

Of the various machines I have had occasion to examine, many of those for Addition and Subtraction have been found to be automatic. Of machines for Multiplication and Division, which have fully come under my examination, I cannot at present recall one to my memory as absolutely fulfilling this condition.

The earliest idea that I can trace in my own mind of calculating arithmetical Tables by machinery arose in this manner:—

One evening I was sitting in the rooms of the Analytical Society, at Cambridge, my head leaning forward on the Table in a kind of dreamy mood, with a Table of logarithms lying open before me.