George Farmer‘s 1867 Tallying Instrument: An Evolutionary Step in the History of Counting Devices

Hello reader! I invite you to join me in exploring a little-known counting gadget from the 1800s – the tallying instrument patented by a trader named George Farmer. His handcrafted device for tracking lumber and money was a small but clever innovation that built upon centuries of calculation advancements before it – and foreshadowed machines that would one day support moon landings!

Overview: Farmer‘s Tally Instrument and Calculation History

In 1867, George Farmer patented a mechanical tallying instrument to help in his milling and lumber work. This palm-sized brass gadget used gears, dials, and levers to reliably track numeric quantities and currency values.

While basics computations today happen instantly on smartphones, for centuries humans manually counted using tools like the abacus. Farmer‘s device connected to this long evolutionary lineage of mechanical calculation.

In this article, we‘ll explore:

  • Key components of George Farmer‘s tallying instrument and how it functioned
  • Farmer‘s background as a tradesman and inventor in America
  • Earlier calculation devices leading up to Farmer‘s ticker
  • Subsequent advancements after Farmer toward modern computers

Let‘s start by examining how the Tallying Instrument itself worked!

Tracking Lumber and Dollars with Interlocking Metal Discs

The patent model of Farmer‘s instrument reveals careful artisan craftsmanship focused on utility over aesthetics. The all-metal device measured just 4 inches across, small enough to be handheld, but intelligently designed to allow reliable counting up to four digit numbers.

The key innovation was a series of three metal discs stacked and interlocked to track hundreds, tens, and single units. The discs rotated on a central pivot aided by clever gearing. Each disc advances by one notch per full rotation.

Here is a breakdown of the Discs:

DiscCounting FunctionNumber Range
Bottom DiscUnits Column0 – 99
Middle DiscTens Column0 – 99
Top DiscHundreds Column0 – 99

The discs automatically propagate carry values between columns, minimizing manual operations needed while tallying.

A dial-plate overlaying the discs displayed ongoing counts through a viewing window. Rotating levers allowed the user to adjust digit values up or down and zero out counts between tallying operations.

Compact, complex, and purely mechanical – this instrument incorporating precision part relationships that anticipate principles guiding analog computer development. Gears as logic gates, carries encoded through contact points rather than circuits.

From England to America: The Tradesman George Farmer

George Farmer was born in England in 1830 and came to America in his mid-20s as waves of European immigration brought over 2 million people in just that decade alone.

Young, ambitious, and skilled as a miller, Farmer initially established roots in Illinois before heading Northwest to Michigan frontier towns like Flint and Saginaw.

The 1860 census lists farmer as a 29 year old "miller" living in Elmira, IL and just prior he had received a patent for a new grain reaping invention, evidence of his mechanical knack.

By 1870, Farmer had moved to Saginaw, MI and decided to go into business alongside his son Albion producing roof shingles – an essential construction material for housing in that era.

It was through exposure to measuring and trading lumber products that Farmer witnessed tallying needs and devised his counting instrument. The little device scratched a personal itch for the tradesman, whether he sold a few units to friends or simply used it himself over the years.

Let‘s take a wider view and put Farmer‘s innovation in historical context…

Centuries of Counting: From Abacus Beads to iPhone Apps

Did you know the origins of manual counting aids predate numbers? Tribes worldwide used tally sticks notched to track trades long before mathematic systems developed.

The first abacus emerged around 2400 BCE with beads sliding on wires or stone channels. Roman empire clerks stacked pebbles on grooved boards to tally taxes 500 years before the birth of Christ!

In the 17th century, French mathematician Blaise Pascal devised one of humanity‘s first mechanical calculators. Numerous inventors continued iteratively improving calculation machines over subsequent centuries.

While rarely famous names, these thinkers collectively produced conceptual breakthroughs and practical gadgets like Farmer‘s that bootstraped technological innovation. Their incremental steps not only aided trades & commerce, but also proved foundational to modern computing.

Let‘s compare a few key benchmarks in the evolution of counting technology before and after Farmer‘s lifetime:

~30 BCERoman Hand AbacusGrooved stone board, moveable pebblesUnknown
1642PascalineClockwork gears add/subtract digitallyBlaise Pascal
1822Difference EngineAutomated computations using polynomial functionsCharles Babbage
1867Tallying InstrumentGears/dials track lumber/money countsGeorge Farmer
1937Z3 ComputerProgrammable, fully automatic calculationsKonrad Zuse
1961Anita CalculatorAll-electric desktop calculatorBell Punch Co.

We see how Farmer‘s tally built upon principles of gears and carries. We also see ideas present in his device reemerge in subsequent decades, like programmable digital calculation by German engineer Konrad Zuse, which ultimately enables modern computing.

Farmer didn‘t radically reinvent calculation like Pascal or Babbage. Instead he judiciously adapted existing mechanical techniques to a specific counting need of his era. But in so doing, he added an evolutionary stepping stone toward machinery carrying men to the moon!

Last Years and Legacy

In his remaining decade after patenting the tally instrument, Farmer continued residing Saginaw, MI with his family and operating the shingle works.

He died at age 50 in 1880 from a cerebral hemorrhage according to city health records. His early passing came the same year Thomas Edison received a patent that catalyzed adoption of electric power distribution.

While the tallying instrument never achieved such wild success, examples did end up surviving over a century later in the collections of the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of American History and the MIT Museum in Massachusetts.

These last existing models stand testament more to intellectual persistence than fame. An everyday inventor saw a problem, synthesized a solution using available tools, and unintentionally edged the world a bit closer to incredible future computational breakthroughs.

Not too shabby for a simple countin‘ contraption from some 19th century lumber!

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into George Farmer and his incremental contribution to calculation history. Let me know in the comments if you want to see more niche inventions given their due!

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