Calculating Machines

From Blaise Pascal in the 1600s to Charles Babbage in the first half of the nineteenth century, inventors struggled to create the first calculating machines. All failed—but that does not mean we cannot learn from the trail of ideas, correspondence, machines, and arguments they left behind. amazon

In Reckoning with Matter, Matthew L. Jones draws on the remarkably extensive and well-preserved records of the quest to explore the concrete processes involved in imagining, elaborating, testing, and building calculating machines. He explores the writings of philosophers, engineers, and craftspeople, showing how they thought about technical novelty, their distinctive areas of expertise, and ways they could coordinate their efforts. In doing so, Jones argues that the conceptions of creativity and making they exhibited are often more incisive—and more honest—than those that dominate our current legal, political, and aesthetic culture.


The introduction alone is an interesting online read. It tells of the difficulty mechanizing addition's carry-propagation. More importantly, it explains why those who sought to automate could not find the materials and those with sufficient skills to work it into devices of sufficient complexity.

It observes that calculation and logic had separate histories that did not meet until the 1930s. My own Life with Transistors began only 20 years later.

The author is not a fan of the isolated genius inventor mythology. He mentions by name Lessig and Doctorow as representatives of the emerging appreciation of collective ownership. See MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity for modern network analysis of trade statistics confirming this view.