June 19 – Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal

Posted on June 19, 2014

Your whole world is surrounded by computers. Not only are there computers on your desk, they're also in your phone, your microwave oven, your TV, your car, your camera, your almost-everything that has a plug or a battery!

Today's birthday boy (born in France on this date in 1623) is part of the history of computing, so we can thank him heartily today. Pascal was a mathematician who invented one of the first mechanical adding machines, in 1642, so that he could simplify all the arithmetic he had to do while helping his father in his career as supervisor of taxes in Rouen, France.

Pascal has always gotten the credit for being the inventor of the mechanical calculators, but a few historians have wanted to give that credit to Wilhelm Schickard instead. About twenty years before Pascal's invention (and totally independent of the latter invention), Schickard had written about a calculator he had created. He included some drawings. If you try to replicate Schickard's invention from the description and the drawings, however, you do not come up with a calculator that works. So he either bragged about something he hadn't actually completed or perfected, or he was sloppy with his drawings and description. Either way, Pascal still gets the credit. Sloppy work cannot be copied and expanded on, so it isn't a jumping-off place; instead, it's a stopping place.

Science and technology are all about creating jumping-off places!

Pascal's adding machine.
Pascal created 50 prototypes of his adding machine, which he called Pascalines, until he was finally satisfied that he could announce his invention to the public. He built 21 of the machines, occasionally making improvements on the design. Nine of these machines have survived until this day and are on display in European museums.

By the way, in 1972, computer scientist Nicklaus Wirth invented a new computer language, and he named it Pascal to honor our birthday boy. I should also note that Pascal made other significant contributions to mathematics and science and even philosophy and theology!

Pascal is considered a child prodigy and a polymath. In other words, he was very, very smart!

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the opening of the first movie theater

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