The first calculating machine


Even in the world of polymath, Renaissance mathematici Wilhelm Schickard (1592–1635) sticks out for the sheer breadth of his activities. Professor of both Hebrew and mathematics at the University of Tübingen he was a multi-lingual philologist, mathematician, astronomer, optician, surveyor, geodesist, cartographer, graphic artist, woodblock cutter, copperplate engraver, printer and inventor. Born 22 April 1592 the son of the carpenter Lucas Schickard and the pastor’s daughter Margarete Gmelin he was probably destined for a life as a craftsman. However, his father died when he was only ten years old and his education was taken over by various pastor and schoolteacher uncles. Following the death of his father he was, like Kepler, from an impoverished background, like Kepler he received a stipend from the Duke of Württemburg from a scheme set up to provided pastors and teachers for the Protestant land. Like Kepler he was a student of the Tübinger Stift (hall of residence for protestant stipendiaries), where he graduated BA in 1609 and MA in 1611. He remained at the university studying theology until a suitable vacancy could be found for him. In 1613 he was considered for a church post together with another student but although he proved intellectually the superior was not chosen on grounds of his youth. In the following period he was appointed to two positions as a trainee priest. However in 1614 he returned to the Tübinger Stift as a tutor for Hebrew.


Wilhelm Schickard, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here we come across the duality in Schickard’s personality and abilities. Like Kepler he had already found favour, as an undergraduate, with the professor for mathematics, Michael Maestlin, who obviously recognised his mathematical talent. However, another professor recognised his talent for Hebrew and encouraged him to follow this course of studies. On his return to Tübingen he became part of the circle of scholars who would start the whole Rosicrucian movement, most notably Johann Valentin Andreae, the author of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, who also shared Schickard’s interest in astronomy and mathematics.


Johann Valentin Andreae Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Schickard appear not to have been involved in the Rosicrucian movement, the two stayed friends and correspondents for life. Another member of the group was the lawyer Christian Besold, who would later introduce Schickard to Kepler.


Christopher Besold etching by Schickard 1618

This group was made up of the brightest scholars in Tübingen and it says a lot that they took up Schickard into their company.

In late 1614 Schickard was appointed as a deacon to the parish of Nürtingen; in the Lutheran Church a deacon is a sort of second or assistant parish pastor. His church duties left him enough time to follow his other interests and he initially produced and printed with woodblocks a manuscript on optics. In the same period he began the study of Syriac. In 1617 Kepler came to Württtemburg to defend his mother against the charge of witchcraft, in which he was ably assisted by Christian Besold, who as already mentioned introduced Schickard to the Imperial Mathematicus. Kepler was much impressed and wrote, “I came again and again to Mästlin and discussed with him all aspects of the [Rudolphine] Tables. I also met an exceptional talent in Nürtingen, a young enthusiast for mathematics, Wilhelm Schickard, an extremely diligent mechanicus and also lover of the oriental languages.” Kepler was impressed with Schickard’s abilities as an artist and printer and employed him to provide illustrations for both the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae and the Harmonice Mundi. The two would remain friends and correspondents for life.


3D geometrical figures from Kepler’s Hamonice Mundi by Schickard

In 1608 Schickard was offered the professorship for Hebrew at the University of Tübingen; an offer he initially rejected because it paid less than his position as deacon and a university professor had a lower social status than an on going pastor. The university decided to appoint another candidate but the Duke, whose astronomical advisor Schickard had become, insisted that the university appoint Schickard at a higher salary and also appoint him to a position as student rector, to raise his income. On these conditions Schickard accepted and on 6 August 1619 he became a university professor. Schickard subsidised his income by offering private tuition in Chaldean, Rabbinic, mathematic, mechanic, perspective drawing, architecture, fortification construction, hydraulics and optics.


Page from a manuscript on the comets of 1618 written and illustrated by Schickard for the Duke of Württemberg

The Chaldean indicates his widening range of languages, which over the years would grow to include Ethiopian, Turkish, Arabic and Persian and he even took a stab at Malay and Chinese later in life. Schickard’s language acquisition was aimed at reading and translating text and not in acquiring the languages to communicate. Over the years Schickard acquired status and offices becoming a member of the university senate in 1628 and a school supervisor for the land of Württemberg a year later.  In 1631 he succeeded his teacher Michael Mästlin as professor of mathematics retaining his chair in Hebrew. He had been offered this succession in 1618 to make the chair of Hebrew chair more attractive but nobody had thought that Mästlin, then almost 70, would live for another 12 years after Schickard’s initial appointment.


Michael Mästlin portrait 1619 the year Schickard became professor for Hebrew (artist unknown)

In 1624 Schickard set himself the task of producing a new, more accurate map of the land of Württemberg. Well read, he used the latest methods as described by Willebrord Snell in his Eratosthenes Batavus (1617).


This project took Schickard many more years than he originally conceived. In 1629 he published a pamphlet in German describing how to carry out simple geodetic surveys in the hope that others would assist him in his work. Like Sebastian Münster’s similar appeal his overture fell on deaf ears. Later he used his annual school supervision trips to carry out the necessary work.


Part of Schickard’s map of Württemberg

Schickard established himself as a mathematician-astronomer and linguist with a Europe wide reputation. As well as Kepler and Andreae he stood in regular correspondence with such leading European scholars as Hugo Grotius, Pierre Gassendi, Élie Diodati, Ismaël Boulliau, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Jean-Baptiste Morin, Willem Janszoon Blaeu and many others.

The last years of Schickard’s life were filled with tragedy. Following the death of Gustav Adolf in the Thirty Years War in 1632, the Protestant land of Württemberg was invaded by Catholic troops. Along with chaos and destruction, the invading army also brought the plague. Schickard’s wife had born nine children of which four, three girls and a boy, were still living in 1634. Within a sort time the plague claimed his wife and his three daughters leaving just Schickard and his son alive. The invading troops treated Schickard with respect because they wished to exploit his cartographical knowledge and abilities. In 1635 his sister became homeless and she and her three daughters moved into his home. Shortly thereafter they too became ill and one after another died. Initially Schickard fled with his son to escape the plague but unable to abandon his work he soon returned home and he also died on 23 October 1635, just 43 years old, followed one day later by his son.

One of the great ironies of history is that although Schickard was well known and successful throughout his life, today if he is known at all, it is for something that never became public in his own lifetime. Schickard is considered to be the inventor of the first mechanical calculator, an honour that for many years was accorded to Blaise Pascal. The supporters of Schickard and Pascal still dispute who should actually be accorded this honour, as Schickard’s calculator never really saw the light of day before the 20thcentury. The story of this invention is a fascinating one.

Inspired by Kepler’s construction of his logarithm tables to simplify his astronomical calculation Schickard conceived and constructed his Rechenuhr (calculating clock) for the same purpose in 1623.

The machine could add or subtract six figure numbers and included a set of Napier’s Bones on revolving cylinders to carry out multiplications and divisions. We know from a letter that a second machine he was constructing for Kepler was destroyed in a workshop fire in 1624 and here the project seems to have died. Knowledge of this fascinating invention disappeared with the deaths of Kepler and Schickard and Pascal became credited with having invented the earliest known mechanical calculator, the Pascaline.


A Pascaline signed by Pascal in 1652 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first mention of the Rechenuhr was in Michael Gottlieb Hansch’s Kepler biography from 1718, which contained two letters from Schickard in Latin describing his invention. The first was just an announcement that he had made his calculating machine:

Further, I have therefore recently in a mechanical way done what you have done with calculation and constructed a machine out of eleven complete and six truncated wheels, which automatically reckons together given numbers instantly: adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides. You would laugh out loud if you were here and would experience, how the position to the left, if it goes past ten or a hundred, turns entirely by itself or by subtraction takes something away.

The second is a much more detailed description, which however obviously refers to an illustration or diagram and without which is difficult or even impossible to understand.

Schickard’s priority was also noted in the Stuttgarter Zeitschrift für Vermessungswesen in 1899. In the twentieth century Franz Hammer found a sketch amongst Kepler’s papers in the Pulkowo Observatory in St Petersburg that he realised was the missing diagram to the second Schickard letter.


The Rechenuhr sketch from Pulkowow from a letter to Kepler from 24 February 1624

Returning to Württemberg he found a second sketch with explanatory notes in German amongst Schickard’s papers in the Würtemmberger State Library in Stuttgart.


Hammer made his discoveries public at a maths conference in 1957 and said that Schickard’s drawings predated Pascal’s work by twenty years. In the following years Hammer and Bruno von Freytag-Löringhoff built a replica of Schickard’s Rechenuhr based on his diagrams and notes, proving that it could have functioned as Schickard had claimed.

Schickards Rechenmaschine

Schickard’s Rechenuhr. Reconstruction by Bruno Baron von Freytag-Löringhoff and Franz Hammer

Bruno von Freytag-Löringhoff travelled around over the years holding lectures on and demonstrations of his reconstructed Schickard Rechenuhr and thus with time Schickard became acknowledged as the first to invent a mechanical calculator, recognition only coming almost 450 years after his tragic plague death.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Computing, History of Mathematics, History of science, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

11 responses to “The first calculating machine

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  7. donnamariadigiuseppe

    Incredible research and impactful images. Thank you.

  8. Constantin Klier

    Minor lingustic correction: It should be named “Stuttgarter Zeitschrift für Vermessungswesen” I guess, refering to “messen” which is the German version of “measure”.

  9. Pingback: Science, War and Pestilence | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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