(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘calculator

“I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth”*…

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves…

The discipline of measurement developed for millennia… Around 6,000 years ago, the first standardised units were deployed in river valley civilisations such as ancient Egypt, where the cubit was defined by the length of the human arm, from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and used to measure out the dimensions of the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the task of regulating measurement to facilitate trade was both privilege and burden for rulers: a means of exercising power over their subjects, but a trigger for unrest if neglected. As the centuries passed, units multiplied, and in 18th-century France there were said to be some 250,000 variant units in use, leading to the revolutionary demand: “One king, one law, one weight and one measure.”

It was this abundance of measures that led to the creation of the metric system by French savants. A unit like the metre – defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole – was intended not only to simplify metrology, but also to embody political ideals. Its value and authority were derived not from royal bodies, but scientific calculation, and were thus, supposedly, equal and accessible to all. Then as today, units of measurement are designed to create uniformity across time, space and culture; to enable control at a distance and ensure trust between strangers. What has changed since the time of the pyramids is that now they often span the whole globe.

Despite their abundance, international standards like those mandated by NIST and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are mostly invisible in our lives. Where measurement does intrude is via bureaucracies of various stripes, particularly in education and the workplace. It’s in school that we are first exposed to the harsh lessons of quantification – where we are sorted by grade and rank and number, and told that these are the measures by which our future success will be gauged…

A fascinating survey of the history of measurement, and a consideration of its consequences: “Made to measure: why we can’t stop quantifying our lives,” from James Vincent (@jjvincent) in @guardian, an excerpt from his new book Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.

And for a look at what it takes to perfect one of the most fundamental of those measures, see Jeremy Bernstein‘s “The Kilogram.”

* “I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth. Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body lies here.” – Epitaph Johannes Kepler composed for himself a few months before he died


As we get out the gauge, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes– and was foundational in the acceleration of the scientific/rationalist commitment to measurement…


Happy Juneteenth!

“He’s a pinball wizard”*…

Mark Frauenfelder talks with Tanner Petch, the creator of play-able pieces of art: an arcade full of handmade pinball machines…

Sinkhole is a backwards game that borrows from the aesthetic of early pinball, particularly “wood rail” games from pre-1960s. The fact that it tilts away from you changes your experience a lot more than you’d expect and came from trying to question what were some of the very core aspects of pinball that could be tinkered with. In addition to the wooden components, the art style, playfield design, and overall theme were inspired by the esoteric nature of early games (at least compared to what we expect today)…

Prometheus was the first game I made and is based on the part of the myth where an eagle eats Prometheus’ liver every day after it regenerates. In the game, the player is the eagle, and the only objective is to hit four drop targets which represent four bites of the liver. You do this as many times as you want to, or until you lose. Rather than an individual score, the display shows the cumulative number of livers eaten as long as the machine has existed…

More at: “Check out Tanner Petch’s weird homebrew pinball machines@tpetch via @Frauenfelder in @BoingBoing

* The Who, “Pinball Wizard,” Tommy


As we finesse the flippers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that Hewlett-Packard introduced the first handheld scientific calculator, the HP-35, a calculator with trigonometric and exponential functions. The model name was a reflection of the fact that the unit had 35 keys.

It became known as “the electronic slide rule”– a device that it (and its successors, from both HP and TI) effectively replaced.


“I like my new telephone, my computer works just fine, my calculator is perfect, but Lord, I miss my mind!*…


Before electronic calculators became affordable in the 1970s, logarithm tables and slide rules were the most common calculation tools used by scientists, engineers, financiers, and navigators.  But in the early 1940s there emerged a purely mechanical, pocket-sized calculator, the Curta; the “pepper mill,” as it was known, was short-lived – only 30 years or so – but it remains a mechanical marvel.

More at “Curta: a mechanical pocket calculator.”

* anonymous


As we add it up, we might send intricately-interconnected birthday greetings to Mark D. Weiser; he was born on this date in 1952.  After earning an MA and a PhD in computing at the University of Michigan, Mark worked for a variety of computer-related startups.  But in 1987 he joined Xerox PARC, and began the work for which he is best remembered: he widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988 to describe the field he pioneered.

Mark was also the drummer of Severe Tire Damage, a garage (pun intended) rock band, the first band to perform on the internet: on June 24, 1993, the band was playing a gig at PARC while elsewhere in the building, scientists were discussing new technology (the MBone) for broadcasting on the Internet using multicasting.  As proof of their technology, the band was broadcast and could be seen live in Australia (by a scientist there alerted by the Palo Alto crew) and elsewhere.

Then. on Friday, November 18, 1994, the Rolling Stones decided to broadcast one of their concert tours on the Internet. Before their broadcast, Severe Tire Damage returned to the Internet, this time becoming the “opening act” for the Stones– so instead of an obscure Australian researcher, the entire world press was watching, and Severe Tire Damage was elevated from obscurity to Warholian fame.  Newsweek described STD as “a lesser known rock band.”  The Rolling Stones told The New York Times: “the surprise opening act by Severe Tire Damage was a good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.”



Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I want the entire smartphone, the entire Internet, on my wrist”*…


As the world watches the clock for the release of the Apple Watch, the Computer History Museum reminds us that watches-that-compute have a very long history…

Ubiquitous, wearable computers have been a dream since at least the 1930s. Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy introduced the 2-Way Radio Watch worn by members of The City police force. At first merely a combination radio and wristwatch, eventually Tracy’s watch added television and other technical capabilities.

This comic strip, in turn, influenced Gene Roddenberry’s communicators on the television series Star Trek, and other images of watch-like communication/computation devices can be found throughout science fiction. The recent announcement of the Apple Watch has renewed interest in computerized wristwatches and revived the idea of a wrist-worn computer that is cool. Of course, the idea is hardly new but it took a long time for the wristwatch computer to reach levels that Dick Tracy achieved.

The earliest combination of the watch form factor with a computational device dates from late 19th century. English company Boucher’s received a patent for a circular slide rule in a pocket watch shape in 1876.

Boucher’s Calculator – circular slide rule


French company Meyrat & Perdrizet made a slide rule chronograph in 1890. The central portion of the device was a standard pocket watch face, with a circular slide rule with an independent hand surrounded it. Two dials at the top of the watch allowed it to perform calculations…

Follow the story– the introduction of wrist instruments in the early 20th century, the advent of electronics– at “It’s About Time: The Computer on Your Wrist.”

* Steve Wozniak


As we strap it on, we might send timely birthday greetings to John Harrison; he was born on this date in 1693.  A self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker, Harrison invented the marine chronometer,  In the absence of a way for ships at sea accurately to ascertain their longitude, sailing was dangerous; cumulative errors in dead reckoning over long voyages led to ship wrecks and loss of life.  Indeed, the perceived threat– thus, the desire of a defense– was so great that Parliament offered a Longitude prize of £20,000 (£2.75 million) for a solution.  Harrison’s approach, which won that prize, was to create a clock so accurate that it could eliminate those errors. His “chronometers” were accurate to within seconds over long periods; his winning clock was off only 39.2 seconds over a voyage of 47 days… and helped create the conditions in which the Age of Sail flourished.  (More detail on the longitude problem and Harrison’s answer here.)



Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

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