Astronomer Clifford Stoll shows off a big, beautiful mechanical adding machine from 1895 in a new Numberphile video.
Long before transistors and other electronics came along, calculators were large mechanical machines that performed mathematics through a series of gears and cylinders turning inside their boxy exteriors. The YouTube channel called the Numberphile got its hands on one such device called the "Millionaire," and released a video Tuesday showing how it works.
While Frenchman Blaise Pascal is often credited with creating the first mechanical calculator in 1642, it was, in fact, German professor Wilhelm Schickard who first invented an automatic adding machine in 1623. Like all gadgets throughout history, the mechanical calculator got better and better at what it did over time. The Millionaire machine is one stop along the way to calculators that eventually fit on our wrists and now take up no space at all on computer desktops everywhere.
The machine was invented by Swiss engineer Otto Steiger and patented and marketed by Zurich's Hans Egli company in 1895. According to the IBM archives, 2,000 of the machines were in use in the early 1900s, with the last one sold in 1935. There were a total of 4,655 Millionaires sold.
As you can see in the video hosted by Clifford Stoll -- an astronomer and computer security expert who once thwarted a Russian hacker in the early days of the Internet -- the machine works through a series of knobs and levers. What's impressive are the truly enormous sets of numbers the gizmo can process with a simple turn of a hand crank. Be sure to watch the entire video because, after demonstrating its functionality, Stoll gives you a peek into how the machine actually works.
Stoll says he bought two Millionaire machines about 35 years ago at an auction for a bank that was going out of business in Buffalo, New York. He paid $75 for them. It doesn't take a machine to calculate that that was a pretty good deal.