Samuel Morland: The Polymath Who Built Early Calculating Gadgets

Have you ever wondered who first started tinkering with little machines to handle math problems automatically? Meet Samuel Morland – the 17th century English scholar who designed some of the earliest human computers! This brilliant polymath crafted clever little gadgets that could add, subtract, multiply and even do trigonometry.

Let‘s explore Morland‘s fascinating story and the remarkable calculating contraptions he devised.

An Early Computing Pioneer

Samuel Morland (1625-1695) showed exceptional brilliance from a young age. He entered Cambridge University at just 14 years old to study mathematics, quickly earning awards in geometry, astronomy and other subjects. But Morland was not just a sharp academic – his creative talents and taste for adventure suited him perfectly for two other roles he took on for the English government: diplomat and spy!

His travels across Europe on covert missions for England exposed him to cutting-edge research and inventions being developed on the continent. Most significantly, while in Sweden around 1653, Morland encountered a calculating machine recently built by French mathematician Blaise Pascal. Pascal had designed this automatic adder, subtractor and multiplier in 1642, when he was still a teenager. Morland examined Pascal‘s demonstration model gifted to the Swedish Queen with fascination – and left resolved to fabricate calculating devices himself upon returning home.

Early Calculating Gadgets

Back in England, Morland set up a workshop to experiement with various mechanical components and calculating configurations. By 1673, a decade of meticulous efforts produced two pioneering machines:

Adding/Subtracting Machine

Morland‘s first invention comprised a stack of eight metal discs representing digits from ones to hundred-thousands. Number dials, display windows and holes around the circumference allowed users to set addends and turn the discs to view sums through the windows. Subtraction worked similarly by reverse rotation. Internally, single-tooth cogwheels enabled carries from one disc to the next.

Materialssilver, brass
Dimensions4 x 3 x 0.25 inches
OperationStylus inserted in holes on discs edges to set numbers, discs rotated clockwise/counter-clockwise to add/subtract
DisplaysWindows showing digit sums from rotations
MechanismStacked number discs with single-tooth cogs to propagate carries
CapacityUp to 1 million

Though impressive technically, the adder relied heavily on human rotation of the discs which limited practical application. But its important proof of automated calculation concept still earned high regard from scholars.

Multiplication/Division Machine

Morland‘s second device automated multiplication and division using the established Napier‘s bones method. This involved engraved number rods laid side-by-side displaying products tables that simplified certain operations. Morland adapted the principle to metal discs engraved with multiplication digits that rotated behind windows showing intermediate products. Users narrowed in on final answers through repetitive alignment of the discs according to multiplier digits.

While conceptually promising, operation still demanded substantial human effort. But the exquisite workmanship of Morland‘s model earned favor with science patrons – he gifted an especially elegant version to Cosimo de Medici, an avid sponsor of new inventions, around 1679.

Recognizing a Visionary

Though his calculating gadgets saw only limited adoption, Morland‘s were among the very first documented machines specifically built to compute solutions automatically. Indeed, he stated their purpose in 1673 as:

performing all manner of arithmetic operations by help of an engine, without charging the memory, disturbing the mind or exposing the operations to any uncertainty

This visionary conception of a general-purpose calculating engine foreshadowed Charles Babbage‘s famous Analytical Engine constructed over 150 years later. considered the progenitor of modern computers.

So while they operated imperfectly using seventeenth century components, Morland‘s historic contraptions embodied seminal notions of mechanical calculation that would one day transform society through computing machines. This polymath stands tall as one of the field‘s earliest pioneers.

Hope you enjoyed learning about Samuel Morland and his quest to conceive little gadgets to compute! Let me know if you have any other questions on this fascinating inventor and his era.

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