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Summarizing the State of the Computer / Calculator Industry Prior to World War I

7/24/1914 to 7/27/1914

The Napier Tercentenary Celebration marking the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Napier's Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio (1614), was held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh from July 24 to July 27, 1914 — just five days before the start of World War I. Participants in the exhibition included individuals and companies from Scotland, England, France, and Germany. The meeting was intended to include a colloquium on the mathematics of computation, but that was canceled because war was considered imminent.

A celebration of Napier's pivotal role in the history of calculation, the exhibition featured displays of many different types of calculating machines, as well as exhibits of other aids to calculation such as mathematical tables, the abacus and slide rules, planimeters and other integrating devices, and ruled papers and nomograms. These were described in the Napier Tercentenary Celebration. Handbook to the Exhibition, which contained separate sections, with chapters by various contributors, devoted to each type of calculating device. Among the notable chapters is Percy E. Ludgate's "Automatic Calculating Machines" (pp. 124-27): apart from Ludgate's "On a proposed analytical machine" (Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society 12 [1909]: 77-91), this chapter contained the only discussion of his improvements to Babbage's Analytical Engine (none of which was ever realized). Also of note is W. G. Smith's "Notes on the Special Development of Calculating Ability" (pp. 60-68), discussing human "lightning calculators" and mathematically gifted "idiot savants," such as were employed by Gauss. Prior to the advent of electronic digital computers, these human computers were often faster than their mechanical counterparts.

The most widely used tools for calculation at the time of the Napier tercentenary were mathematical tables, which were thoroughly surveyed, explained, and described in the Handbook (bibliographical descriptions of the rare mathematical tables exhibited were published the following year in the Napier Tercentenary Memorial Volume. The Handbook also contained a large illustrated section on calculating machines, which were divided into four types: (1) stepped-gear machines based on the Leibniz wheel, such as those of Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar; (2) machines with variable-toothed gears, such as the Brunsviga; (3) key-set machines like those made by Burroughs; and (4) key-driven machines such as those made by Felt and Tarrant.

The Handbook was published in two forms: a softcover version presented to those who registered for the exhibition; and a hardcover version issued for sale under the title Modern Instruments and Methods of Calculation. Relatively few copies of the softcover version seem to have been distributed at the exhibition, partly because the exhibition took place in Edinburgh, but mainly because war broke out just after it began, and the exhibition was open for only 5 days. Most copies were bound in cloth and sold in London.

"The events of the First World War caused no less upheaval in the world of computing than in the rest of society. A great many technical changes, such as the ever-increasing use of punched-card accounting machines, were to cause computing to assume a different character in the time between the two World Wars. Thus the Handbook should be viewed as a report on the state of the art just before these changes were to begin taking place" (Williams 1982, [x]).  

Hook & Norman, Origins of Cyberspace (2001) no. 322.

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