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The Prehistoric Era

1310 - 1617

Europe just slipped out of the dark ages. In Asia sciences had their top days. The first mechanical calculators showed up in Europe. Leonardo Da Vinci did he really invent a mechanical calculator?
Napier developed the natural Logarithm

pre history | antiquity | pre industrial era | industrial era
0000 - 469 - 1310


early mechanical clockThe first mechanical clocks appeared in Europe, supposedly because of inspiration by the stories that came from China about mechanical clocks.

The first mechanical clocks were rather simple and just sounded a bell every hour.(15)

In this period China was a very mysterious part of the world and very few dared to travel the distance, but Marco Polo is one person who did. On his return facts were mixed with tales and blown up to mythological proportions. Not so for clocks and other amazing things, like the compass, these were things that could be carried home to the motherland.

Related Articles
  Tallies and Technologies
by David Birch
  pre history
pre-industrial era
Industrial era



The earliest reference to computers came from a writer called Trevisa.

He wrote about "Compotystes" meaning persons that occupied themselves with calculations of time.



Circa 1403-09 an encyclopedia of over 20,000 chapters, the Yongle Dadian(17), is compiled in China.

first encyclopedia

picture courtesy: Cornell University Library

An encyclopedia is a written compendium of human knowledge at the time of publishing.

A few centuries after the Dadian is published a few attempts by Ephraim Chambers in the UK 1728, and a project led by Denis Diderot in France 1771 (16)) will create similar encyclopedias but these will be just a shimmer of the Yongle Dadian. Another but this time more successful encyclopedia is created between 1768 and 1771, the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). And thanks to improved printing techniques and facilities this one will be re-published several times, well into the 21st century.

Encyclopedia Britannica (18)

In the 19th century in most countries works like the EB were published. Most active were North America (American Encyclopaedia), France (Encyclopédie), and Germany (Brockhaus). Though the methodology of the encyclopedists did not change much during the centuries (entries organized in hierarchical or alphabetical order) at the end of the 20th century a new technology of publishing is used: CDROM. Amongst the most known are MS-Encarta and EB. While since 2000 the World Wide Web offered online encyclopedias like Wikipedia.

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These tally sticks were used by the exchequer in the UK to keep track of taxes. (see also David Birch's article on Tallies and Technology)


regiomontanus mechanical eagleRegiomontanus is rumored to have made a mechanical eagle that flies out from the city ramparts to greet the Holy Roman Emperor on one of his visits to Nuremburg.

This seems to have happened sometime between 1471-1475, the time during which Regiomontanus lived there.(20)

Do you want to knowrobotics ?


Leonardo Da Vinci drew the first clock with a pendulum.

Later in the 1950-60's Japanese engineers will use this mechanism as a timer (parametron) and calculation mechanism in their computers. It was also Da Vinci who probably invented the first mechanical calculating device ever. A reconstruction of his device made it very plausible that this was true.

Leonardo_2.jpg (36626 bytes)

This was the design in his own writing. Da Vinci wrote from right to left and in reverse (you could only read it normally from a mirror). The paper or book in which he described his device is called the "Codex" and parts of it are preserved in different museums. (2)


This is the reconstruction of his calculator, its present location is unknown to the editors

replica of Leaonardi da Vinci's calculator


first western robotBefore he began to work on the Last Supper, Leonardo designed and possibly built the first humanoid robot in the Western civilization.

The robot, an outgrowth of his earliest anatomy and kinesiology studies recorded in the Codex Huygens, was designed according to the Vitruvian canon. This armored robot knight was designed to sit up, wave its arms, and move its head via a flexible neck while opening and closing its anatomically correct jaw. It may have made sounds by the use of automated drums. On the outside, the robot is dressed in a typical German-Italian suit of armor of the late fifteenth century. This robot would influence Da Vinci's later anatomical studies in which he modeled the human limbs with cords to simulate tendons and muscles.(13)

Do you want to knowrobotics ?



The Quipa, an aid of "computing" by means of making knots in tiny ropes was widely in use by the Inca's.

Quipas were made with colors and rope lengths a combination that had its own specific meaning. The Peruvians had devised a similar handy gadget consisting of strings and knots, called a Quipu, to assist them with counting. They used a form of decimal notation the position and form of the knots indicated tens, hundreds, etc. (12)


Adam Riese (1489-1559) was the most famous and influential German arithmetician of the 16th century.

He is author of many popular commercial arithmetic books which made use of Indo-Arabic numerals instead of counters. (14) This promoted the use of the arabic notation in Europe tremendously.



Peter Henlein, a craftsman from Nuremberg Germany, creates the first watch.



The first spinning-wheel became in use in Europe.

This is a nice example of parallel inventions, since these kind of wheels were also developed in India and thereabouts but much earlier.



A Florentine merchant named Francesco Lapi uses the '@' sign for the first time in recorded history in a letter.(10)


The increasing sophistication in technology of clocks and watches resulted in making more complicated kinds of automata during the European Renaissance.

Gianello Toriano's mandolin playing lady is a famous example. This "clock" technology would become of crucial importance to the further development of computer technology.

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Nicolaus Copernicus published the Revolutionibus, in which he stated that the planets and earth were moving around the sun.

With this statement he recreated the contemporary human relationship to God as this was felt by the clergy. And as usual the authorities (i.e. the church) did not like his 'revolutionary' vision. He had a hard time surviving in the 16th century society, where all sciences and arts were subsidized by the clergy or nobility. Being supported as an artist or scientist by a maecenas (well doer) is not uncommon in this time. and the church effectively silenced Copernicus by withdrawing her support. A method still in use by modern-day politicians.



Joost Buerghi (Switzerland) developed the Logarithm table(6).

This marks a milestone in the development of mathematics. Much later it appeared that without the development of logarithms the computer would have taken much longer to develop.



Lord John Napier (1550-1617) from Merchiston (Scotland), thought to be practicing black arts, developed the Natural Logarithm (ln).

He also invented a mechanical calculator, the famous Napier Bones, what made it rather simple to multiply, and wrote about it in his Rabdologica.(published posthumously in 1617)
Mind that in this period people can hardly divide and multiply. If you could do so, you belong to the highest educated part of society. In almost all important technical museums, you can see originals or copies of the Napier bones: Paris Musée des Hommes et Techniques, London Science Museum, Muenchen Deutsches Museum, Washington Smithsonian Institute, etc.


picture: IBM Corporation

napier bones



Galileo Galilei develops his geometric and military compass into a general purpose mechanical analog calculator, to be known as the Sector.



electraWilliam Gilbert coins the term electricity from the Greek word elektra.



Around this year the first clock showing minutes and seconds is built by Joseph Burghi, Switzerland



In Padua, Italy, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) publishes "Le Operazioni del compasso geonerico et militare" a manual for the sector he developed in 1597


John Napier made the first printed use of the decimal point (after it had been invented in the Netherlands) and invented logarithms, and several devices for multiplication.

The "bones" he invented were an aid to multiplication, though perhaps the chessboard calculator is the most ingenious and least known!




Lord John Napier published his findings on logarithms in his tractate "Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonus Descriptio" (Description of the admirable Canon of Logarithm) and influenced with this paper the entire development of mathematical science in the United Kingdom and beyond.


front page rabdologica

Napier's book is published posthumously : "Rabdologiae, sue Numertionis per Virgulas Libri duo" in which he explained extensively the method for division and multiplication using his "Napier Bones".(7)


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