From Abacus to Silicon Chip

For it is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation, which could be safely relegated to any one else if the machine were used. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

"Computation: From Abacus to Silicon Chip" is an exhibit completed in July 2001 which may be seen in the hallway opposite the Faculty of Science offices in CW223 Biological Sciences Building. It was created with artifacts borrowed from filing cabinets, book shelves, display cases and office walls in the Department of Computing Science. It is intended to show very briefly the evolution of calculating devices from counting boards to abacuses, logarithms and slide rules, to mechanical and electromechanical calculators and mathematical tables, and the first and latest electronic computing facilities at the University of Alberta.

The backdrop shows on one side the Leibniz quotation given above against a background of a portrait of Leibniz and on the other side a woodcut from the Margarita Philosophica, an early 16th century encyclopaedia containing an excellent treatise on arithmetic. The woodcut shows a contest supervised by Lady Arithmetic between Pythagoras, supposedly the inventor of the Hindu-Arabic numerals, and Boethius, a 6th century Roman scholar. Boethius is using the new numerals and Pythagoras an abacus.

Separating the two is a 54-inch slide rule which was used for promotional purposes in the U of A Bookstore and occasionally for classroom use in Computing Science.

One side of the hanging panel shows a variety of mechanical and tabular aids to computation including Chinese and Japanese abacuses, a one-foot slide rule which was an essential calculating aid for science and engineering students until the 1970s, a Curta calculator which was used until about the 1980s, a copy of Knott’s mathematical tables which were loaned to students during examinations until the 1960s, and several electronic pocket calculators.

On the floor are a Multo calculator to the left and a Model SCM Marchant desk calculator to the right. The Multo calculator was used by students in the Department of Mathematics for statistical calculations until the 1960s. This model of the Marchant calculator was used in the 1940s and 1950s and performed multiplication and division by repeated additions and subtractions and carriage shifts.

The other side of the hanging panel illustrates a few of the electronic computers that have been used at the University of Alberta and shows a simple numerical example programmed in LGP-30 machine language, Pascal and Java. Also shown is a copy of the book of mathematical tables compiled by Professor Campbell of the Department of Mathematics and first published in 1929.

On the floor is the IBM 5100 minicomputer, developed in the mid 1970s, which was the immediate precursor of the IBM personal computer. It weighed about 48 pounds and cost about $15,000. It had a Random Access Memory of 64K bytes (with a more permanent memory provided by a magnetic tape cartridge), and a monitor which displayed 16 64-character lines. Output could also be displayed on a TV monitor, and it was used in the classroom for instruction in both APL and BASIC.

This exhibit was developed with the cooperation of the staff of Museums and Collections Services and with financial support from the Faculty of Science. Some technical information was also provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. and The Computer Museum History Center, Mountain View, California.

There are many Web sites devoted to the history of computing. Five very interesting ones which have links to a very large nunber of related sites are the following:

      Xnumber. World of Calculators

      The Virtual Museum of Computing

      The Computer Museum History Center, Mountain View, California


      IBM 5100

The following Web site gives a chronology of the personal computer from 1966 to 2001:


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