A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3.6 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, The Paris Review, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 3,000+ total posts
This thinking stick comes to us via the courtesy of the Scientific American Supplement (19 August 1876, page 542), and shows a lovely Victorian non-SteamPunk answer to on-the-run calculation. It is an almost-elegant device, and seems as though it should work just fine. Its utility as a writing instrument seems a bit limited, as seems the calculator part, but the whole of it seems to be full of possibility--and a very nice piece of dedicated thinking.
[Text describing the invention below.]
Other nice examples of adding/writing found in the U.S. Patent Office via GooglePatents are seen below:
QUESTON: If great but not-popularly-known scientists could be represented as a chess piece, and that chess piece was on a game board opposite Popularly-Known-Celebrities-Not-Known-to-Scientists (and etc.), what piece would the great and dusty Robert Hooke be? And conversely, (on that opposite side), what piece would someone like, say Paris Hilton be?
I wonder about poor old Robert Hooke. He was such a tremendous thinker, a terrific rush of ideas, with revolutionary insights in many fields; he was a leading architect, a physicist, a microscopist, a chrononaut, a mathematician, an everything. He carried the Royal Society for years, carried on hundreds if not thousands of experiments, and of course was famously on the other side of a bad series of arguments with Isaac Newton. At the end of his long life, Hooke was afraid of not being remembered, of not having enough money to see
himself through hi sold age, afraid of others taking credit for his
work. He just seemed not to matter, anymore, in the last decade of his
life (and a period in which he was still doing significant work), and I
just wonder why he managed to become so semi-invisible.
He was so dedicated. I have an image of him scurrying with a friend, removing the estimable library of a patron and donor to the Society, trundling the books in wheelbarrows across a mile and then-some of bumpy London streets finding a home for these great treasures. He was an older man at this point, marching these books across parts of the city that he helped to restore after the fire, passed buildings that he helped to build and design, bumping his way through London, a great and famous scientist, saving books by the handful. [An idealized portrait of Hooke, at right.]
He was a tireless,
relentless observer and experimenter, who lost little effort in a stranded idea
and pursued interesting and problematic questions relentlessly. More than others too he chased his won glory—minor
but long and insistent—the years of which wore thin on many people in the
scientific community. But there were
many characteristics of the man that made him not quite so lovable and
endearing—not that Newton was any of those things, as he was not, but if you
are going to be a secondary luminary to a super nova you’ve got to have
something else going for you that the other man doesn’t have—sharing, helpful,
greatly generous—to get you into the long pre-dusty pages of history. Also it would’ve
helped if Hooke chose his battles with a little more aplomb and ingenuity—the
war which began in 1672 with Newton went very badly for Hooke and followed him
to the grave (and far beyond).
He just didn't "catch on", I think--at least he not for the long term. His brain teemed with ideas, but perhaps by the last decade of his long life, his tireless brain still working on innumerable bits, he just sucked the air out of a room.
He also never had his likeness recorded during his lifetime. And that is saying a lot. And I still don't know why.
Back to chess: I figure Hooke to be a Knight. I prefer Knights. He moved like a Knight. He importance was "higher" than that of a Knight, but, well, the Knight seems a good fit (and so he seems to get downgraded, in a way, even in this game). And Paris Hilton? I think she might be a queen (with a small "q")--as someone who is ultra-well-known but not for anything in particular except for the quality of being well-known.
The title of this quick post seems both irresistibly attractive and horribly repelling in an oh-g_d-is-this-what-we're-down-to dissertation for a moderately-good university. But really all this post is is a title--I stumbled upon this table looking for emigration figures to illustrate a dot-matrix map from the United States Industrial Commission (printed in 1900), volume 3, which concentrated on the statics and sociology of prison labor. So what this table shows is the effect of prisoners' labor on the price of pork and pork fat in the Chicago market for a ten year period at the end of the 19th century, and what we see is that the "free" labor in prison in this area produced cheaper prices in the fat market. There you have it. [Source: Internet Archive, here.]
Can We See More or Less than We Used To Be Able To See?
An early study of attention and perception (or “How Many Items Can it Embrace at Once?”) popped out at me while muscling my way through another year of Nature magazine for 1871. The article was by the polymatic W. Stanley Jevons ("The Power of Numerical Discrimination," in Nature volume III, 18711) who contributes an interesting and very early experimental bit on the success of the brain to correctly formulate an accurate memory when in a flash shown a number of items. (That is to say, when shown a certain group of X-number of items instantaneously and then removed, how often will the mind be able to remember the correct number upon recall--and without committing them to memory per se or counting them?) In this fascinating study Jevons records not only right/wrong answers but how "close" the remembered fit is to the original number, and in effect is a pioneering scientific effort towards understanding our abilities and limits in information processing. And as it turns out the ability to precisely recognize and remember groups of objects with success and without counting stops at about four items for the vast number of people texted. (It is another display of a famous four, including the four faces of Brahma, directions, Gospels, minute mile, playing card suits, seasons, corners of a square, virtues, color problem and of course four- letter words, to name a few.)
[Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections, here.]
Its important to distinguish Jevons’ experimental work on apprehension from earlier (and much earlier) philosophical
and semi-scientific work on memory formation and retention. This of course goes back as far or as deep as you want to go—taking a stab at random we’ll use Simonides who while trying to organize poetry and other data in his head came upon the idea of using Mnemonics and using associative processes in art and poetry to establish his own history of memory. (I should point out that one of the early-modern experimenters in the formation of memory was Giordano Bruno (at right) who wound up being tortured and burnt at the stake for other offense against The God while trying to formulate a truthful approach to science; evidently the memories that would be threatened by his scientific approach proved to be too much for the righteous in power, and he was removed before he could threaten corrective memory any further.)
It is interesting that many of the crimes of science punished by the Catholic Church during this period (1450-1650) were as much crimes against memory than they were crimes against the future—changing and challenging collective memory often proved fatal.
Getting back to Jevons—who was a very smart guy and who applied himself to a number of fields, not the least of which was constructing a logic machine: his experiment proved to be a springboard for a host of others, some of which didn’t do Jevons justice, misreporting his finding, misrepresenting the stuffy, and so forth. Perhaps the greatest of these was the greatest of the efforts based on his—Raymond Cattell —who for some reason stated in his very influential textbook of 1907 that humans can remember around 7 things (without counting) when the objects are flashed before their eyes. And for a hundred years this figure stuck, even though the Jevons report issued a more complex summation, and saying, anyway, that the number was around 10.
And what bothered me a bit with the Jevons experiment is what people remembered when shown the objects (beans)—would his results have varied if subjects were asked how many were shiny or odd-colored or deformed or whatever rather than just a simple number, the results could’ve been more interesting. (I don’t doubt that these issues have been taken up in the 20th century but haven’t looked). Sometimes people are just looking in the wrong places—for example operant psychology labs tested rats via visual stimuli until it was discovered that rats were olfactory geniuses and that humans were using them wrong all along.
It would be interesting to know what the history is of human capacity for image formation. Considering the growth of distractions and the enormous amount of true and trash stimuli—visual bombardment from television, outdoor advertisements, the sheer amount of growth of human construction and interaction—have humans enhanced this spatial/memory information processing capacity? Consider the growth of (just) eye movements over the last few hundred years, with the visual sense being subjected (for all classes of people) to enormously and fractally-expanded print sources, television, digital communication and so on—has this expanded this neural capacity? Has "space invaders" aided bean counting?
I don’t know, though I do wonder (literally) what the effect exponentially-growing mass input of (mostly junk) data might be doing to our noggins. Maybe the effects lean more towards dissolving privacy and reflective time—when does a person think if interruptive stuff is coming into your head at all points of the day, with the brain trying to interpret incomplete and ambiguous strings of sensory inputs?
Seems scary to me. Maybe memory is affected, maybe it makes it go away, shriveled because recollection is being eliminated. Or demented like the wonderful Yossarian (his first name is John, btw) from Joe Heller’s beautiful Catch-22 who develops for himself a condition in which he remembers everything twice (whatever that means).
It would be interesting to see a war of societies in which the sides were a culture that remember
nothing versus a culture that remembered everything. The unspeakably lovely Jorge Borges wrote something touching on this in "Fumes the Memorist," in which the humble narrator is capable of forgetting nothing, being able to recall explicitly everything within eyesight, perfectly—the problem is though that it takes a day to remember the events of another day. What would happen in such a culture where everyone forgot nothing?
And I’ve just been dealing here with visual memory, really—and as Proust makes plainly clear (and Borges and other prove), vision isn’t everything.
I'm not sure that I've ever seen a list of the personal daily cost of antique drug use, though I did manage to stumble across one in a remarkable little pamphlet by Edward C. Jandy called Narcotic addiction as a Factor in Petty Larcency in Detroit (published November 1937). There's a lot packed into its 23 pages, not the least of which is a pretty sophisticated look at how to examine the costs of drug addiction to the sales economy of that city. One of the interesting historical bits that emerges from it is a list of the daily cost of the addiction of one of the target study groups--a selection of 43 local addicts with a combined 673 years of addiction (averaging an unholy 15.5 years of addiction/person).
[Full list in the Continued Reading section.]
There are immediate limitations to this info--for example there is no correlation to the number of years of addiction to the individually-reported daily drug costs--but since this data seems to be fairly rare it does at least give some idea of the strain of usage per person.
And what does it mean to spend $5/day on your heroin habit? CPI is useful, but it is better to look at what that figure means in terms of the average salary and costs of basic goods. If you were working back there in a bad spot of the Depression in 1937 the average salary was about $1,700/year, which means that if these addicts were working (and the great majority wasn't) then they would be spending about 1/3% of their annual income per day--or a little more than all of their daily salary--on their everyday habit. Spending $1,800 a year on drugs on a $1,700 salary leaves not-so-much-room for anything else but crime, and not having any income at all would mean that all of that money would have to be from criminal activities.
In another (potentially gross) way of thinking about this expense is by looking at the average salary in 1937 being about 1/30th of what the average American family income is in 2012, so the daily $5 heroin hit would be something like $150 today, which sounds about right. And if you applied that multiplier to some other standard 1937 prices1, the numbers are fairly constant from then to now--the big exception being postage stamps (which would be $1.50 for a first class stamp) and gasoline ($6/gallon), both of which would show a decline. Again, that's a very crude approximation, but it does pause.
The author then does some tricky and interesting semi-statistical work with the bottom line showing that drug addicts stole a total of about 3% of the total retail sales (of $545 million) in the U.S. That's a big number--in today's economy, which currently stands at about $33 billion in thefts (or 1.5%) that would 3% for just addicts would be an enormous number, twice the national general total which would spike drug losses at $100 billion for theft alone.
I'm thinking that these 1937 stats might be a little (or a lot) loose, but it the report still is decently argued and nicely presented though the data might be not-great--and the daily/habit numbers are a fine thing to find.
JF Ptak Science Books Revisting/Expanding Post #76 (from 2008)
Saunderson (1682-1739) was an extraordinary mathematical talent—he was
also blind (from about the age of one), and invented, principally for
his own uses, what I think is the first mathematical calculator designed
specifically for the use of the blind.
He was supremely gifted and creative, and rose to become the fourth Lucasian professor at Cambridge, succeeding the expelled William Whiston, who had in turn succeeded Isaac Newton—Saunderson also held the post for one of the longest periods of time, 1711-1739. He was friend and associate to Newton, Whiston, Roger Cotes, Halley, De Moivre and others during a particularly rich intellectual period in the history of physics and the maths.
His calculator was smart and simple, based on a cribbage-board –like device, that was able to perform arithmetical and algebraic functions—it consisted of nine rows and was worked with two pins, the positioning of the pins on the engraved board telling the user their value. (There was another calculator for the blind constructed by Meyer (below, left) using a sort of reverse principle to the Saunderson model where it was the shape and placement (leaning or not, for example) of the pegs in the hole that annotated value rather than their placement on the board. The Saunderson computer was described in his The Elements of Algebra…, published at Cambridge in the first edition just after the author’s death, in 1740. The device was described in the book by John Colson (who succeeded Saunderson to the Lucasian chair), who commented that it was via the use of the device that Saunderson could compose his treatise on algebra. (Above is another Saunderson-based calculator allowing for the construction and study of geometrical figures).
"Palpable Arithmetic", the sub-heading for the sheet illustrating aspects of algebra for Abraham Rees' (1743-1825) great if not problematic 45-volume Cyclopedia, is a system that records and organizes and sometimes calculates using three dimensional objects.
For example the Egyptians (for one) calculated with pebbles; then there was the ABAX of the Greeks, and the abacus (and also called the mensa Pythagoras) of the Romans (and of the Japanese and earlier still of the Chinese), the scaccarium of the English (via the Norman conquest), and innumerable other systems that performed arithmetic and recording and archiving functions via the employment of reeds, notches on a tree or cloth or stick (etc.), reeds, knots, fingers, beans,shells, string, sand, and on and on. Palpable arithmetic also has a specialized meaning in places as a calculating device in which the numbers are recognized by touch and used by blind mathematicians or other parishioners. (Just for the record, there are a number of eminent blind mathematicians including, for example, Leonard Euler (1707–1783, who was blind in the last 17 years of his life), Nicholas Saunderson (who I wrote about in an earlier post), Louis Antoine (1888-1971), Lev Pontryagin (1908-1988.))
An interesting and very large philosophical issue that comes up here with the blind mathemaitican is the concept of image formation and its dependence upon sight for intuition, as with geometry or topology. Plato for one determined for himself that image formation issues were precognate and the same in sight and non sighted people. How would you manipulate a geometrical form if you’ve never actually seen one, or how would you extend you spatial imagination of compex forms without a reference?
But my main issue here is the image from the hees book. I'm by the meaning of this particular calculator or recording system--I just can't tell what it is. Can you? If so I'd love to hear from you.
Note on the Anthropology of Numbers:
From Levi Leonard Conant's The Number Concept Its Origin and Development we find these very descriptive definitions of words for numbers, all of which relate to the sort of implement that they were controlling their numbers with, or calculating:
"in Javanese, Malay, and Manadu, the words for 1, which are respectively siji, satu, and sabuah, signify 1 seed, 1 pebble, and 1 fruit respectively. Words as natural and as much to be expected at the beginning of a number scale as any finger name could possibly be. Among almost all...the derivation of number words from these sources can constitute no ground for surprise. The Marquesan word for 4 is pona, knot, from the practice of tying breadfruit in knots of 4. The Maori 10 is tekau, bunch, or parcel, from the counting of yams and fish by parcels of 10. The Javanese call 25, lawe, a thread, or string; 50, ekat, a skein of thread; 400, samas, a bit of gold; 800, domas, 2 bits of gold.The Macassar and Butong term for 100 is bilangan, 1 tale or reckoning..."
Lewis Carroll created a lovely, simple cipher in the midst of his Alice and Snark and Logic and Sylvie publications. It really is just a simple bit of polyalphabetic substitution, bu tit gets the job done. (Many others have walked this royal road: Leon Battista Alberti, A Treatise on Ciphers, [De componendis cyfris]; Giovan Battista Belaso, La cifra del Sig. Giovan Battista Bel[l]aso, gentil’huomo bresciano, nuovamente da lui medesimo ridotta à grandissima brevità et perfettione, Venetia 1553 (and also his Novi et singolari modi di cifrare de l’eccellente dottore di legge Messer Giouan Battista Bellaso nobile bresciano, Lodovico Britannico, Brescia 1555); Giombatista Della Porta, De furtivis literarum notis vulgo de ziferis, G. M. Scoto, Neapoli 1563; Galileo Galilei, Intorno a due nuove scienze, Opere, . Vol. VIII, Firenze; Blaise de Vgenere, Traicté des chiffres ou secrètes manières d’escrire, Abel l’Angelier, Paris, 1586; and so on...its a very wide literature, even pre-18th century). Louis Carroll. Louis "Cipher" Carroll. Comes sort of goofily close to "Louis Cipher". Lucifer. Not the case, of course unless you were trying to figure out one of his tricky puzzles.
Perhaps it is the cipher's presentation and design and simplicity, its elegance, that I like so much. It reminds me in some ways of the Henry Holiday masterpiece of nothignness created for Carroll's Hunting of the Snark--and that of course would be the Bellman's map, a map of nothing, a map showing nothing at all to the sailors who must follow it and who were all happy that the map had nothing to obstruct their vision of possibility and blank expectation. (I wrote about that in The Most Beautiful Map in the World, here). It is interesting to note that none of the illustrators who followed Holiday chose to illustrate the nothing map with such nothingness as in Carroll--there would be hands on it, or the map would be oblique, or not the central image of the illustration. Holiday's map was just that--straightforward, simple, strong).
I've decided to make this a part of the History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things series simply because everything is missing unless you have the missing key--here you have all the parts of the puzzle, and then some, everything that you need to solve it, save for the integral part of ordering.
From Carrolls's text:
Each column of this table forms a dictionary of symbols representing the alphabet: thus, in the A column, the symbol is the same as the letter represented; in the B column, A is represented by B, B by C, and so on.
To use the table, some word or sentence should be agreed on by two correspondents. This may be called the 'key-word', or 'key-sentence', and should be carried in the memory only.
In sending a message, write the key-word over it, letter for letter, repeating it as often as may be necessary: the letters of the key-word will indicate which column is to be used in translating each letter of the message, the symbols for which should be written underneath: then copy out the symbols only, and destroy the first paper. It will now be impossible for any one, ignorant of the key-word, to decipher the message, even with the help of the table.
For example, let the key-word be vigilance, and the message 'meet me on Tuesday evening at seven', the first paper will read as follows—
v i g i l a n c e v i g i l a n c e v i g i l a n c e v i
m e e t m e o n t u e s d a y e v e n i n g a t s e v e n
h m k b x e b p x p m y l l y r x i i q t o l t f g z z v
The second will contain only 'h m k b x e b p x p m y l l y r x i i q t o l t f g z z v'.
The receiver of the message can, by the same process, retranslate it into English.
If this table is lost, it can easily be written out from memory, by observing that the first symbol in each column is the same as the letter naming the column, and that they are continued downwards in alphabetical order. It would only be necessary to write out the particular columns required by the key-word, but such a paper would afford an adversary the means for discovering the key-word.
"The name Magic Square, is given to a square divided into several other small equal squares or cells, filled up with the terms of any progression of numbers, but generally ah arithmetical one, in such a manner, that those in each band, whether horizontal, or vertical, or diagonal, shall always form the same sum." --from the very busy Charles Hutton's translation of Jean Etienne Montucla's edition of Jacques OzanamRécréations mathématiques et physiques (1694, 2 volumes, revised by Montucla in 1778, 4 volumes) and the whole thing revised in an English edition of 1844 by the appropriately-names Edward Riddle, and available online at Cornell's collection of historical mathematical monographs.
That was sort of a simple introduction to magic squares, tortured by my note on the quote's parentage. Nevertheless, leafing through a copy of Ozanam's work I found a lovely little (literally speaking, as it is about 1/2 inch by an inch) 3x3 multiplication magic square for the happy sequence of 1, 2, 4 ,8, 16, 32, 64 and 256. (That means that each of the nine numbers may appear only once, and that the product (4096) must be the same for each column and row). It is a nice little problem, and I was just surprised to see it in such spare simplicity.
And since we're at it slightly, a few pages further on I found this nice series of 3x3 magic squares for numbers 1-25:
These also are a half-inch (or less) and about two inches long...they're just very attractive.
But I guess I cannot leave the subject of "pretty" magic squares without referencing a "beautiful" one, and this being one of the earliest inclusions of a magic square in Western printmaking, and surely one of the most beautifully-encumbered one in general, from Albrecht Durer's mega-popular masterwork, Melancholia (printed 1514). The magic square had been around for at least 2,000 years at this point, starting up evidently in China between 650-1000 BCE before making its way west through the Arab lands and then through India, and finally into Europe around the 13/14th century, and then into art prints with Durer in 1514.
I doubt that Abraham's Rees' "Magic Circle of Circles" (published ca. 1814) is "pretty", and I'm not so sure it is "beautiful", but I am sure that it is "elegant".
Ditto his "Magic Square of Squares" (published ca. 1814):
In any event these are just a few samples that I had close to the top of my head--no doubt there are endless others, but these are some that have attached themselves longest to me (with the exception of the Ozanam, which are new).
These lovely images weren’t intended to show people living in the Renaissance and Baroque eras how to actually record data on their hands—they were intended rather as templates to show how they could use their fingers and hands for calculating and as memory devices. Much like Frances Yates has shown us so beautifully in The Art of Memory and how info and data was stored in imagined and compartmented palaces in the mind (relying upon images), the hands were also used as a theatre of memory in addition to extended calculation.
These mnemonic devices were necessary—especially during the Renaissance—because of the general lack of and access to affordable vellums or paper and writing instruments. Having notebooks filled with memoir or history o calculation was generally not something that was happening for even the not-wealthy but not struggling class. These mental images were used widely in the areas of religion, palmistry, astrology mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, music, and other such fields. The first image (from a German manuscript) of the hand-theatre was found and deciphered by Claire Richter Sherman (Folger Shakespeare Theatre) and is religious in nature, an intentional piece of memory for the devoted and for devotions. The needs of religion were splayed out as the hand was opened and fingers flexed, and working from thumb to pinkie, from finger tip and joint—“do God’s will, examine your conscience, repent, confess”, and so on, and above all be content with your lowly penitente stature. If there were 28 of these admonitions or reminders at different points of the hand and you memorized them all, it would be a much simpler time to recall and keep them in order if you merely had to touch a part of your hand where that memory should be to invoke what it was you were supposed to do. Therefore you could theoretically cast about with your creator with your hands in your pockets—if you had pockets.
The next two images (including the enlargement of the hand section) are from a work from 1587 entitled Musique and are attributed to John Cousin the Younger (1522-1597). The basic premise for this device—it seems to me—was to be able to order the different chords of 20 different instruments. Another musical hand mnemonic was the Guidonian hand, a survivor of Medieval times, and possibly named after Guido of Arezzo (a musical theorist), and was an aid to singers learning to sight sing.
The entry for the Guidonian hand in Wiki explains it use rather well: “The idea of the Guidonian hand is that each portion of the hand represents a specific note within the hexachord system, which spans nearly three octaves from "Γ ut" (that is, "Gamma ut") (the contraction of which is "gamut", which can refer to the entire span) to "E la" (in other words, from the G at the bottom of the modern bass clef to the E at the top of the treble clef). In teaching, an instructor would indicate a series of notes by pointing to them on their hand, and the students would sing them. This is similar to the system of hand signals sometimes used in conjunction with solfege…” The final two examples come from Jakob Leupold’s (1674-1727) Theatrum Machinarum (1724)—this was a complex work involving nine sections and addressed the theoretical aspirations of engineering (load, flexure, that sort) and its applications to its daily practitioners. In one section of the book he sought to explain the connections (and correlations) of hand motion and symbolism to the origins of the number systems, carrying it out further still into body language, so that two people conversant in these symbols could talk and bargain between themselves in economic/body terms. Barbara Maria Stafford, in her Artful Science, Enlightenment,
Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education (1994) points out the long history of this tradition, and that it reached far back into misty time: Leupold knew that Appian, the Venerable Bede, and Aventinus had been fascinated by manuloquio, or natural language with the hands. He thus linked counting to a global….medium of prearranged gestures…”
It isn't often that you see money represented by dry measure, but that's what happened here in these two examples from the fantastic Walker Statistical Atlas ( Statistical Atlas of the United States based on the results of the tenth census 1880 with contributions from many eminent men of science and several departments of the government Comp. under the authority of Congress by Francis A. Walker, M. A., superintendent of the tenth census ... and published in 1884). What we see here is a history of American federal indebtedness from 1791 (when the public debt stood at 75.1 million dollars) to 1881 (about 2 billion). Using the CPI (consumer price index) as a factor to translate that number in 2008 dollars (or so), the 2 bil grows to about $40 billion (a nickel then is about a dollar now). The interesting part of the legend--and what drew me to this graphic even before its somewhat unique shape--state "1"--370 millions", that is one inch of pink horizontal bar stands for about $370,000,000, and the last bar on this graph is about 6 inches long, which, adjusted for inflation, would now be about 10 feet long. .That said, the really interesting part comes next--if we use this measure to graph a horizontal bar for the American debt as it stands in 2008, it would pink a pink bar that was about a HALF MILE long to express our 10(+) trillion dollars of debt. OR, somehow, the old debt of 1881 would be about 1 story of a house, while the 2008 version would be up one side of the Empire State Building and down the other (and yes that includes the aerials). I don't know how to put this comparison in context, the differences are so staggering.
After having popped a neuron or two trying to get my head around that one, we'll further confuse the situation with the second chart, which shows the total net indebtedness of the U.S. in 1881 in terms of square inches; or, at the bottom of it all, a 7x7 inch square represented the entirety of the $3 billion owed out. 49 square inches. Working backwards this time, our $10 trillion (or $10,000,000,000,000.00 writ large) adjusted back to a CPI value in 1881 would have covered about 88 PAGES of the atlas or 9,000 square inches. Again, the numbers are just almost too big to mean anything.
We, as a country, owe one hell of a lot of money.
And yes there are many different ways of trying to figure out what one 1881 dollar "means" in terms of 2008 dollars, but the CPI is the most simple to use and least argumentative and at least gives a pretty good idea of scale. It would be more useful to try and establish the degree of difficulty of turning the corner on the debt in 1881 compared to doing that today, but this is just a late-night post at the end of the week, and I don't have a good clue about how to try and measure that bit simply.
The Monroe calculator must have seemed the same sort of inspired salvation to the 1930's generation as the hand-held Texas Instruments calculator (with paper feed!) that I saw displayed in a glass-domed pedestal at Barnes and Noble in Manhattan in 1973. Small, compact, and with fantastic calculatign capacity--and expensive. It was in a very real sense a glimpse into the future. For the general, garden-variety Monroe, it certainly offered its users a much smaller, tidier machine than some of the brutes of the decade or two preceding it--make no mistake, there were some big bruising accounting Monroes that were truck busters.
But the Monroes that appeared in these ads from LIFE magazine in the late 1930's were certainly populist, and easily transportable. And they cost about as much (with some smoke/mirrors adjusting for inflation and etc) in 1937 as the $450 TI cost in 1973. (The TI machine was produced just seven years or so after its first hand-held was introduced--I'm unsure of the 450 price tag, though I think it about correct. The TI SR-50 without a paper trail cost about $150 in 1974.)
Monroe is an old company (begun in 1912) company that produced hand-cranked and electromechanical calculating devices. The Monroe salesman's handbook that I have here from 1929 shows versions of their machine that were lightweight and versatile (at 38 pounds) to behemoths for insurance companies that were truck-haulable. Monroe became part of Litton before reappearing again on its own, trying to compete in the hand-held market with its own electronic display calculator--a device that cost $269 in 1972. Monroe was basically "done" by the 1960's.
I think that for most people Texas Instruments is produced hand-held calculating devices--it is of course a vast concern, with a long history that gets catapulted during WWII when the formerly geology-based company gets involved in military electronics. Fast forward, TI created FLIR and MERA, laser-guided control systems for PGMs (laser-guided bombs/precision-guided munitions), launch and leave glide missiles, and so on. IT was also involved in the earliest work in microminiaturization, producing (by Gordon Teal) the first commercial silicon transistor (1954) and the first integrated circuit (by Jack Kilby) in 1958. And so on. Its a big, old company.
And as much as each company was offering a similar god-send to their generationally-distanced mathematician/number cruncher, TI simply didn't have ads like Monroe. And I've always iked to see numbers-on-the-move.
I was reading Computers and Automation tonight and found this lovely short story in the July 1956 (volume 5, no. 7) issue. It is a short story written by Jackson W. Granholm (a biographical note on Granholm appears in the ACM notices here) on the application of a supercomputer put to solving a very particular--and peculiar--problem.
The story is called "Day of Reckoning", and tells the tale of the ever-working, highly-dependable-indispensible SUPERVAC being readied to accept the end-all program, readied like the countdown to the launch of Apollo 11 to receive the question, hauling on board into his storyline the other professionals who read the journal for tech reports and info, trying to keep them in his boat with a sci-fi tale based on his own work experience on some big machine at Boeing.
Finally, we see the question: "Describe the detailed design of your superior successor!"
Well of course the SUPERVAC had been working perfectly right up until this time, though with the problem submitted the computer began to behave erratically. It works for 12 hours or so, blinking and flashing away, until at 10:35 pm the MULL light went out, the solution reached.
"12 October 1957, 2230 PM PST, 0130 am GCT--PROBLEM 198BC12-XA--RECKON HAVE EXCELLENT POSITION HERE. NOT 2ISH RELINQUISH IT AT THIS TIME. THANKX. ROGER -- PDA**EM --OUT."
In the history of pictures of bread, this loaf seems to be about the biggest. The 60-million-pound loaf is meant to represent a week's ration for teh newly-fighting German army. The war, the Great War, WWI, was just beginning when this article hit the newsstands on 22 August 1914. There wasn't much yet printed in the Scientific American regarding the war, and it seems as though this was the first cover of the magazine to deal with the new world-ender. But in the blazes of the guns of August (B Tuchman) the end of the conflict might've looked a little close at hand. I doubt that many would've seen the 100,000,000 dead and wounded that would come as a result of the war, at this point just finishing its first month.
I am not sure why, but the editors of SA chose to think about supply for their first stab at making a cover-comment about the war. It does give some idea of the sheer numbers of people involved, at least on the German side. Hoiw this is iterated by a 400-foot-tall loaf of bread, I can't exactly say.
(Are potatoes one tenth the density of :"meat"? The potato sack and the meat chunk look to be about the same size, though the meat bit is less than a tenth of the weight of the potatoes.)
Two issues later--5 September 1914--we see the following artistic display of quantitative data, a much more effective way of generating understanding on the differences in troop strengths among the waring countries:
The United States would not get involved in WWI until 1917, and so American statistics were not included in this image. But if they were, the U.S. Army's size would be somewhat larger than little Montenegro there at the far right. Given the American population of 92,000,000, the army was quite small, with barely 98,000 soldiers under arms (half of whom served overseas). (Montenegro's force of 50,000 was somehow pulled out of a population of 350,000 people--Belgium, with a population of 7 million, had an army more than double the size of that of the U.S.) Of course this was a peacetime, hands-off army for the United States, and by the end of 1914 President Wilson expanded the standing army to 140,000; by 1918, when the newly-instituted draft1 really kicked in, more than 4,000,000 people would be in the armed services, half of whom would serve overseas.
1. Beginning in 1917 all males between the ages of 21 and 30 were required to register for the draft/military service, and by September 1918 more than 23,000,000 men had done so. This was an extraordinary leap from the Army totals for 1914.
The first exposure of the American public in general to a "personal computer" may have been in this issue of the Scientific American for November 1950--an article called "Simple Simon" by Edmund Berkeley. ( Berkeley also wrote a book called Giant Brains, which seems to me to be the first mass-consumption book--written in terns for the general public--on how the computer works, and the design of "how a machine will think". Berkeley looks at the MIT Differential Analyzer #2, the Moore School ENIAC, Bell Labs' General-Purpose Relay Calculator, and the IBM Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator.)
The Simon was a five-hole paper tape (which was its data entry and memory) 2-bit storage relay-based computer that could use numbers from 0 to 3. It was extremely limited, but it worked, and it was real. And affordable. And a baseline for things to come. [The original issue of the magazine can be found in our blog bookstore section, here.]
Berkeley introduced the idea for Simon in Giant Brains:
"We shall now consider how we can design a very simple machine that will think.. Let us call it Simon, because of its predecessor, Simple Simon... Simon is so simple and so small in fact that it could be built to fill up less space than a grocery-store box; about four cubic feet....It may seem that a simple model of a mechanical brain like Simon is of no great practical use. On the contrary, Simon has the same use in instruction as a set of simple chemical experiments has: to stimulate thinking and understanding, and to produce training and skill. A training course on mechanical brains could very well include the construction of a simple model mechanical brain, as an exercise..."--Edmund Berkeley, in Giant Brains, 1949, p. 22
In the Scientific American paper Berkeley introduced the machine and how it functioned; he also described three three outcomes for Simon:
First: "Simon itself can grow. It possess all the essentials of a mechanical brain..."
Second: "It is likely to stimulate the building of other small mechanical brains. Perhaps the simplicity and relatively low cost of such machines may make them attractive to amateurs as the radio set and the small telescope." [The "low cost" in 1951 was $600--equal to about $3000 today.]
Third: "It may stimulate thought and discussion on the philosophical and social implications of machines that handle information..."
Berkeley finishes the three-page article with the following paragraph, looking into the not-too-distant future:
"Some day we may even have small computers in our homes, drawing their energy from electric-power lines like refrigerators or radios ... They may recall facts for us that we would have trouble remembering. They may calculate accounts and income taxes. Schoolboys with homework may seek their help. They may even run through and list combinations of possibilities that we need to consider in making important decisions. We may find the future full of mechanical brains working about us."
This is a short note on the blank nature of the "checkers", the place-holders, the missing numbers, of ancient computing machines, the counters (jetton, or jeton1) used in early/ancient arithmetical reckoners, the material pieces used to aid in addition and multiplication "devices". These bits were sometimes pebbles or shards of pottery or rocks, and placed on the ground with a grid drawn in dust, or in sand, or on any surface that could hold a line. There are fancier and more permanent types of these instruments, as we see in the right side of this iconic woodcut image from a 1503 universal compendium of knowledge--a simple wooden table with incised counting lines, with the jettons being blank disks.
The book that this beautifully-illustrated counting board is found is in Gregor Reisch'sMargarita Philosophica, and depicts (amidst much else in the greatly humanist volume) representations of the mathematicians Boethius and Pythagoras working math problems on the given tools of their day. (The Reisch book is remarkable: it is basically a Renaissance encyclopedia of general knowledge, divided into twelve books: grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, physics, natural history, physiology, psychology, and ethics.) We can see in his expression that Boethius, on the left, is rather enjoying himself, knowing the superiority of his system of counting, which was the the Hindu-Arabic number notation--he definitely has a sly, self-appreciating smile on his face. Pythagoras, working with the old counting table, definitely looks worried, or at least unhappy, unsettled. Never mind that Pythagoras (570-495 b.c.e., none of whose works exist in the original, another sort of entry in our Blank History category) was at a definite disadvantage in the calculating department, being dead and all that for hundreds of years before the Arabic notation was more widely introduced in the West, probably being introduced by Pisano/Fibonnaci in the 12th century. But it does fall to Boethius, the smirker, to have introduced the digits into Europe for the very first time, deep into the history of the Roman Empire, in the 6th century.
The numerical stand-ins in the Reisch book with which Pythagoras worked were blank, coin-like slugs used as placeholders, and would be used in place of rocks or pebbles or whatever other material was at hand. It is interesting to note that the Latin expression, "calculos ponere", which basically means "to calculate"or "to compute", is more literally translated into "to set counters" or "to place pebbles" (upon a counting board) or to set an argument2, which is exactly what some of the Roman daily reckoners would do at their work. And also used, in this case, by the unhappy Pythagoras.
Here's a small close-up of the blanks:
The problem that the Pythagoras-person was working on (flipped 180 degrees) shows him adding the numbers 1241 and 82. A jetton occupying the the top of the mark on the counting board, counting as one unit of 1000; followed by two units of hundreds; four tens; 2 on the ones. The other number interestingly keep one jetton in between two lines, signifying an easy wade of enumerating 5 of any one kind, in this case depicting 8 tens units, coupled with two ones., thus making the number 82.)
For an excellent explanation of the many and varied methods of ancient calculations see the article by Steve Stephenson3 on how ancient computers worked, found in the IEEE Global History Network site, here.
It is a simple observation, but interesting to me nevertheless, that there was so much about these early counting systems that even though extremely useful they were also highly ephemeral--the counting boards being inscribed in dust or sand or dirt, the counters/numerical placeholders being blank disks or pebbles or pottery shards--and so so much of the counting world depended on so little.
1. I should point out that these markers seem to have been decorated more often than not--its really just those items that appear in the Reisch book that I am addressing. On jettons, in general, see here ; also, Jetons, Their Use in History.
2. See Jen (1998, April 25). "Roman Counting Instruments", in The Math Forumat Drexel University. Also see Karl Mennigner's (1969) Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers, a big, academic/coffee table book on the history of numbers. Also in general, see: Barnard, Francis Pierrepont, (1916). The Casting-Counter and the Counting-Board, A Chapter in the History of Numismatics and Early Arithmetic. Oxford University Press, London.
3. This is a deep and nicely-explained effort looking at the development and different sorts of these instruments, as well as how they functioned. Regarding the Reiwch woodcut, Stephenson says:
Pythagoras has his abacus oriented with a vertical median line;
The lines are equally divided so the same number of jettons can be accommodated on either side of the median line;
The top horizontal line is marked with an X, (perhaps) to indicate the unit line; and
On the right side of the abacus is a jetton in a space, all other jettons are on horizontal lines.
On pp.313-314, Prof. Barnard describes and quotes from Legendre, François, 1753. L'Arithmétique en sa perfection, Paris, pp. 497-528, Traité de l'arithmetiqué par les jetons:
It was permissible to set and to work the jettons of the sum without using the spaces [between lines], ... But it was much more convenient to anyone who was expert at the practice, and less confusing to the eye, to reduce the number of jettons by using the spaces.