Evolution of Technology: Adding and Subtracting

Category: Evolution of Technology Series

Comic about evolution - Darwin

Professor Weber leads off our look at adding and subtracting – math – and the devices old and new that we employ, in this edition of the Evolution of Technology blog series which is co-written by Professor David E. Weber and myself.

We often use the term technology as a catchall shorthand reference to the microprocessor-driven devices (notebook and desktop computers, mobile telephones and smart phones, tablets, iPods and more) we use for work, play and management of our lives generally. The basic purpose of the chips in the hearts of those devices is to perform calculations. Therefore, to think in terms of the evolution of technology is to a significant extent to think about the evolution in tools used for calculating.

Chinese Abacus

I began counting on my fingers (I have ten), later used rudimentary memory systems to keep count (I remember a second-grade assignment in which we tied one knot on a string to represent five units, as cowboys ostensibly did when counting cattle), and performed and logged calculations with pencil and paper. I believe that today’s youngsters probably do as much. I also used other tools for calculation that Millennials and their younger siblings may never lay hands on.

As a child, when I visited my father at his law office, I made straight for the secretaries’ bullpen to play with my favorite device: the adding machine, with a gracefully rounded Bakelite housing, mint-green numeric keys and, rolled neatly like toilet tissue, narrow white paper that curled backward over the rear of the machine. For several minutes, I would type in number after number, some with four or five digits and others with one or two, and then hit a button and get an immediate sum. Magic! I also liked the sound –“sha-ka-zhoozh!” — that the machine made when I mashed the button.

Burroughs Adding Machine

Professor, was it this one?

In ninth grade I encountered a new calculating device. My high school purchased a calculator. I don’t mean a hand-held device, though. This “calculator” needed space; so the science teachers moved around lab equipment and furniture to give it, if I recall, about as much square footage as one would allow for a closet. Students in almost all the science and math courses, required or elective, used the calculator for various assignments. You had to make an appointment to interface with the calculator. I remember having to write out the figures I wanted to calculate; I seem to recall I handed my paper to a student volunteer who somehow input the numbers; and I received the results on a piece of paper. How I used those results, though, I don’t recall. All in all, the adding machine was much more fun.

Near the end of high school, though, I encountered a very cool calculating tool: the slide rule. I never liked science or math and did not do well in those subjects, but I loved my slide rule. I could, or needed to, perform only a couple of types of calculations, but what fun to use that “slip stick!”

Slide Rules store

In the 17th century, a British mathematician named Oughtred built the first tool that we might recognize as a slide rule. It consisted of thin, flat, notched and numbered rods that, laid next to one another, used logarithmic principles to perform accurate calculations. It took two hundred years, though, before a French military engineer invented the runner (e.g., the clear, sliding “window” with the cat’s-whisker, designed to lead your eye to the correct numerals) that would bridge across the rods. In the U.S.A., inventors further refined the design and first began filing patents for “better-mousetrap” versions of slide rules during the second half of the 19th century.

I got my first slide rule — a moderately priced but beautiful bamboo device, manufactured by Post — as an eleventh grader taking (against my will!) chemistry. Slip stick makers favored bamboo because of its stability no matter the weather or humidity (I would occasionally shake a small amount of baby powder onto the tracks, to ensure that the perfectly machined wooden strips might always glide effortlessly as, tongue in groove, they nestled into one another). On the chem. lab wall, our teacher, Mr. Miller, hung a so-called demonstration slide rule, probably eight feet or more long, using it to walk us through the procedures we had to master.

Very old calculating machine

My Post slip stick stayed in a desk drawer in my old bedroom when I went away to college in 1970. I weaseled out of even some required classes in what we would today call the STEM subject areas. I therefore had no need for the bamboo beauty and it disappeared at some point.

Small electronic calculators knocked slide rules out of the box for good, seemingly overnight. The first of them appeared in the early 1970s. Some people even referred to them as “electronic slide rules.” As a humanities major, I did not need them any more than I needed a slip stick. In fact, from the beginning of college until the late 1980s, when I first purchased a small calculator, I simply used pencil and paper whenever I needed to calculate. Despite not liking math, I nonetheless could always figure quickly and accurately by hand. I figured I would lose those skills if I relied on calculator. Also, I didn’t trust the devices. For as long as several months after I first owned one, I would punch in numbers, hit the equal sign…and then hand-calculate the problem just to make sure the calculator had given me the right answer!

Pile of old calculators

This story ends with the dawn of the home computer age and digital spreadsheets. I never actually learned how to use the spreadsheet application programs, though. Although for several years in the 1980s-‘90s I had a business as a consultant, I successfully sidestepped the mathematics part of running my one-man consulting operation. Today, I use spreadsheets for one of the courses I teach at the university: two hundred students in the course every semester. The first semester (Fall 2009) I taught it, I calculated each student’s grade with my calculator. Talk about drudgery … hours and hours and hours across a couple of days that I will never get back!

The next semester, I asked a computer ops technician to set up an Excel spreadsheet for grading. Inputting the grades for the various assignments and exams takes time; but once you’ve done that, the Excel equations (which I have no idea how to write!) take all the hard calculation work off your shoulders, and you end up with a gorgeous column to the far right of final scores.

Wow, Professor Weber, as usual you astound me with your memory and the details you provide. My memories are a bit sketchier, but I do recall that I was the “party trick” at many of my parent’s dinner parties when I was quite young because of a unique ability I possessed. I was pretty much a human calculator, with the ability to very quickly add, subtract, and multiply pretty large sums very quickly. My parents would proudly parade me out to their guests and ask them to shout out calculations and I invariably would elicit a chorus of “wows.”

Consequently, math was an easy and favorite subject throughout my schooling. I recall seeing slide-rules but never was taught how to use them nor did I need any calculating device during my Psychology major in college.

Early electronic calculator

I recall seeing smaller calculators appear sometime during my undergraduate period, in the early seventies, but they were pretty big and pretty expensive. I still was able to very quickly do most calculations, though not with the whiz speed of my single-digit years.

For much of my life, watches fascinated me so when Casio came out with a digital watch that had a calculator built into it; I thought I was living in the Space Age. Well, in fact I was, since those were the years of major space exploration in our country.

Wrist-watch calculator

Beyond that, I continued to take pleasure and pride in knowing how to do most calculations very quickly in my head. I learned the basic tricks to speed up the process and I still enjoy showing off when given the chance, plus experience has given me the ability to guestimate (spell check is saying that isn’t a word? I don’t care) pretty darn well.

A related memory that still disturbs me was trying to learn the computer technology of the day that included these foreign languages such as Fortran and others. I never “got it” and struggled with those then required courses. Later, during my MBA, I was required to take statistics and that course really spoke to me and make a ton of uncommon sense since the actual number needed to have reliable statistics doesn’t comport with our instinctual sense.

Comic about interpreting numbers

Later, I used to say that what I learned in that statistics class was the ONLY thing I ever used in my later career in showbiz. I was about the only person who could explain how and why the infamous Neilson television ratings both works and how and why they were accurate to a degree well beyond the sample they used. The reason they used a larger sample was exactly because the real needed one would just defy most people’s understanding. I found that a wonderfully interesting but useless fact.

Okay, that is it for my memories on this topic. Please check out the other columns in our Evolution of Technology series. What do you think of our turning this into a book? My thought is to make it a coffee-table book with an array of very cool photographs? Your thoughts?

How about skipping that $5 Starbucks latte and splurging $2.99 (for the Kindle on Amazon) or $2.79 for the PDF of my new e-book? Enjoy my own informercial for it! This e-book is really a virtual journey. It’s filled with 100 photos, 7 original videos, and links to many of the stops on the trip. Click on the book cover image below to find your purchase options: 

Book Cover from The Empty Nest

  • David W.

    Another brilliant column! These two guys should be on contract with Wired magazine!

    The Burroughs adding machine pictured was not specifically the one I wrote about. The machine in the photo is older than the ones I played with at Dad’s office…those machines had a button to push to sum up the numbers, not a handle to crank down.

    Although it so happened that a grade-school classmate of mine, named Ben, had one of those older models at his house. Maybe his parents used it, or maybe it was just decoration. Either way, it was functional and Ben and I would play with it much as I did with the machines at the office.

    Cranking the handle down to get the answer was more fun than pressing the button on Dad’s office machines. Also, Ben’s old machine was mechanical, not electrical; so (it is difficult to describe, but here goes…) when you cranked the “sum-it-up” handle, rods with numerals engraved on them would rise up immediately against an inked ribbon, and press the numerals onto the white rolled paper.

    The rods would be a row, so let’s say that the sum was 82,479 … well, the rod furthest to the left would rise so that “8” would be stamped, the rod immediately to the right would stamp “2,” and so on. I can’t recall how many rods there were, but assuming there was a total of eight rods, a sum larger than 99,999,999 could not have been calculated.

    How the actual calculation inside a machine, mechanical or electronic, that did not have a computer chip in its core, I don’t know.

    In doing some research for my part of the column, I discovered that there is a relatively large and enthusiastic community of people who collect slide rules and still use them recreationally, I guess you would say. Much as an old-school typewriter is better for a few things (such as inscribing an address on an envelope, or a notecard) than a computer is, it is possible that a slide rule is better for certain types of calculations than a calculator is.

    Finally … one of the photos in the article depicts an abacus. This calculating tool also has quite a history. I discovered that even though we most of think “China” when we think of abacus, the abacus in concept and basic structure is found in many cultures, inside as well as outside Asia.

    I recall that when I lived in Asia for several years in the ’80s, one could — in Hong Kong…Singapore…Bali…Tokyo…Kuala Lumpur…Jogjakarta…all over! — see an abacus in many small restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, flea market stalls and other local establishments.

    In a subsequent sojourn in Asia in the 1990s, I saw fewer … and from 2010 to 2012, when I visited Vietnam 4-5 times for professional assignments, I may have seen one in a tailor shop in Saigon where I bought some silk pajamas as a gift, but I can’t recall for sure, and no other sightings come to mind.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Professer @disqus_dU5ulU60s7:disqus – I’m not sure Wired could afford them.

  • http://www.wonderoftech.com Carolyn Nicander Mohr

    Great trip down memory lane! I miss slide rules. They were so very cool once you learned how to use them. My kids don’t even know what they are.

    I remember when calculators cost more than smartphones do now. Today’s phones come with very sophisticated calculator apps included. What upsets me is that schools still require my kids buy calculators for a lot of money when a free app can do the same job.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      @wonderoftech:disqus – I love that you’re commenting! You really miss slide rules? Many of the school “requirements” are really odd and wrong these days, IMO.

    • David Weber

      The app, however, gets you get into the problem of having the students have their (smart)phones turned on during class, which means (as the teacher or a classmate) dealing with interruptions by ringing, vibrating and so no.

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        NOT WORTH IT THEN @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus – there’s no way anyone can resist doing other things when their phones are on!

  • Technology is updating day by day. I think it will update before the universe ruin. But is it makes easy our life? I think it’s complicated our life. Before technology I mean this type of update people was happier with their family.