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Reinventing machines: the transmission history of the Leibniz calculator


This paper argues that we should take into account the process of historical transmission to enrich our understanding of material culture. More specifically, I want to show how the rewriting of history and the invention of tradition impact material objects and our beliefs about them. I focus here on the transmission history of the mechanical calculator invented by the German savant Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz repeatedly described his machine as functional and wonderfully useful, but in reality it was never finished and didn't fully work. Its internal structure also remained unknown. In 1879, however, the machine re-emerged and was reinvented as the origin of all later calculating machines based on the stepped drum, to protect the priority of the German Leibniz against the Frenchman Thomas de Colmar as the father of mechanical calculation. The calculator was later replicated to demonstrate that it could function ‘after all’, in an effort to deepen this narrative and further enhance Leibniz's computing acumen.

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Matthew L. Jones , ‘Improvement for profit: calculating machines and the prehistory of intellectual property’, in Jessica Riskin and Mario Biagioli (eds.), Nature Engaged: Science in Practice from the Renaissance to the Present, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 125147

J.A. Bennett , ‘The mechanics’ philosophy and the mechanical philosophy’, History of Science (1986) 24, pp. 128

Simon Schaffer , ‘Scientific discoveries and the end of natural philosophy’, Social Studies of Science (1986) 16, pp. 387420

S.W. Woolgar , ‘Writing an intellectual history of scientific development: the use of discovery accounts’, Social Studies of Science (1976) 6, pp. 395422

Augustine Brannigan , ‘The reification of Mendel’, Social Studies of Science (1979) 9, pp. 423454

F.W. Kistermann , ‘When Could Anyone Have Seen Leibniz's Stepped Wheel?’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (1999) 21(2), pp. 6872

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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