Ramón Verea

Ramón Verea: The Spanish Journalist Who Beat His Time in Creating an Advanced Calculating Machine

In the late 19th century, Spanish émigré Ramón Verea made waves in the fledgling world of mechanical calculation with an innovative direct-multiplying machine years ahead of its time. But this little-known inventor came not from a background in engineering or mathematics. Rather, his decades-long career in New York City journalism and publishing drove an ambitious side project that led to one of the earliest examples of rapid, complex mechanical calculation.

From Rural Spain to the New York Press
Born in 1833 in rural Galicia, Spain, Verea left his home country while still a young man. He spent a formative decade in Cuba starting in the 1850s before settling in New York City in 1865. There he would live out much of the rest of his life as a working journalist and publisher closely tied to the Spanish-speaking community.

Verea leveraged his writing and publishing work into other business ventures including trading Spanish currency and serving as a broker for inventions and patents. This exposure to the world of inventions appears to have sparked an interest in mechanical calculation. As a publisher constantly working with numbers and circulation figures, Verea was also naturally drawn improving the practical act of calculation.

In an 1881 article Verea wrote on his machine in New York newspaper Las Novedades, he detailed four primary motivations for taking on the ambitious challenge of building a mechanical calculator:

  1. Ego – he wanted to prove his ingenuity
  2. Patriotism – to show Spanish inventors could compete with leading nations
  3. Desire to advance science and technology
  4. Alignment with his personal interests and skills

The Calculating Tech Landscape of the Late 1800s
To understand Verea’s contribution to calculating technology requires examining the landscape when he patented his invention in 1878. At this time, most calculating machines could only multiply through repeated addition. For example, to multiply by 16, an operator would turn a crank six times to arrive at the correct product.

Direct multiplication, on the other hand, could allow inserting two numbers and arriving at the product by a single turn of the crank. But achieving this posed complex technical challenges few had managed to solve. American Edmund D. Barbour received a patent in 1872 for a direct multiplying calculator using an elaborate system of racks and pinions. But there is no evidence he commercialized the machine.

Verea’s Breakthrough Direct Multiplier Design
Likely inspired by Barbour’s work, Verea set out to design his own direct multiplying machine. On September 10, 1878, he was awarded US Patent No. 207,918 for a “Calculating Machine.” The patent describes an ingeniously crafted mechanical system to allow rapid direct multiplication as well as division, subtraction and addition.

At the heart of Verea’s machine were two 10-sided vertical metal cylinders, each side with holes representing digits 0 through 9. An operator would first configure one cylinder for the multiplicand number and the other for the multiplier digit. Turning a crank would rotate the cylinders causing a complex interaction of internal racks and gears. This ultimately directly computed the product, which appeared on numbered dials on the back of the machine.

Verea’s calculator could process multiplicands up to 9 digits and multipliers up to 6 digits. Remarkably, it produced products up to 15 digits long. Such capacity far exceeded the typical calculating machines of the late 1800s. His approach also greatly sped up multiplication compared to repetitive addition, providing a true step-change in mechanical calculation.

Publicity and Prizes for a Pioneering Machine
News of Verea’s advancement in calculation technology began spreading not long after he filed his patent application in July 1878. Journals including Scientific American and French journal Le Courrier published short notices about this new multiplying calculator from Spain.

Verea worked quickly to build a completed prototype which he displayed at the 1878 Exposición Mundial de Inventos in Matanzas, Cuba. This invention exhibition awarded his calculator a gold medal, providing further validation of its significance. Verea stated he produced a second prototype as well which he sent to the US Patent Office to supplement his patent filing.

More details on the pathbreaking device came from a New York Herald article on Verea’s machine in 1881. The reporter observed demonstrations of the machine multiplying large numbers in seconds. As an example, it correctly calculated 9,000,000 x 9,000 considerably faster than the journalist could complete the same computation by hand. This speed and capacity was simply unheard of in commercial calculating technology of the period.

The Missed Opportunity of Verea’s Masterwork
Unfortunately, Verea’s disinterest in commercialization or further development meant this promising advance in direct mechanical multiplication came to a swift end. As he stated frankly when asked about his intentions, “I just moved the desire to contribute something to the advancement of science and a little self-esteem.” Having proven his inventiveness, patriotism and skill, while satisfying his personal interests, Verea saw no need to take the machine any further.

The prototype sent to the US Patent Office found its way by 1930 into the early computer history collection at IBM. But Verea’s epochal invention had almost no lasting impact or influence on the advancement of calculating technology in subsequent decades. The path to high-functioning, commercially viable direct multiplication machines would wait another decade until the likes of Léon Bollée began building off the concepts first introduced by Verea.

Still, Verea deserves credit as a pioneer in one of the most transformative technologies of the modern era. Driven by personal motivations more than financial incentives or entrepreneurial spirit, this Spanish journalist and publisher nevertheless made an under-appreciated impact. In an alternate history where Verea nurtured his ingenious machine into an actively marketed product, it could have dramatically accelerated advances in mechanical calculation through earlier adoption of direct multiplication. But even as ultimately a historical footnote, Verea showed impressive foresight to conceive such an advanced device at a time when most calculating still centered on repetitive addition.

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