Wilhelm Schickard

Wilhelm Schickard (22 April 1592 – 24 October 1635) was a German polymath who designed a calculating machine in 1623, twenty years before the Pascaline of Blaise Pascal. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the machine as it was being built in 1624 and Schickard decided to abandon his project. Unknown to the world for more than three centuries it was rediscovered in 1957[1] and therefore had no impact on the development of mechanical calculators[2] (see Pascal versus Schickard).



Schickard was born in Herrenberg and educated at the University of Tübingen, receiving his first degree, B.A. in 1609 and M.A. in 1611. He studied theology and oriental languages at Tübingen until 1613. In 1613 he became a Lutheran minister continuing his work with the church until 1619 when he was appointed professor of Hebrew at the University of Tübingen.

Schickard was a universal scientist and taught biblical languages such as Aramaic as well as Hebrew at Tübingen. In 1631 he was appointed professor of astronomy at the University of Tübingen. His research was broad and included astronomy, mathematics and surveying. He invented many machines such as one for calculating astronomical dates and one for Hebrew grammar. He made significant advances in mapmaking, producing maps which were far more accurate than those which were previously available at the time.[3]

He was, among his other skills, a renowned wood and copperplate engraver.[3]

Wilhelm Schickard died of the bubonic plague in Tübingen, on 23 or 24 October 1635.[3] In 1651, Giovanni Riccioli named the lunar crater Schickard after him.

Political theory

In 1625 Schickard, a Christian Hebraist, published an influential treatise, Mishpat ha-melek, Jus regium Hebraeorum (Title in both Hebrew and Latin: The King's Law) in which he uses the Talmud and rabbinical literature to analyze ancient Hebrew political theory.[4] Schickard argues that the Bible supports monarchy.[5]

Calculating machine

In 1623, Schickard invented a calculating machine that he called a Speeding Clock or Calculating Clock. It preceded the Pascaline of Pascal by twenty years and Leibniz's Stepped Reckoner by more than half a century[6].

Schickard's letters to Johannes Kepler show how to use the machine for calculating astronomical tables. The machine could add and subtract six-digit numbers, and indicated an overflow of this capacity by ringing a bell; to add more complex calculations, a set of Napier's bones were mounted on it. Schickard's letters mention that the original machine was destroyed in a fire while still incomplete.

It is important to note that Kelpler used another one of Napier's inventions for his calculations (much more appropriate for computing planets' orbits than his Napier's bones): the logarithm tables; Because of this, Kepler dedicated his Ephimeris to John Napier[7].

The designs were lost until 1957; a working replica was constructed in 1961[1], unfortunately it showed a problem with its carry mechanism that could damage the machine in an operation that needed to propagate a carry consecutively (like adding 1 to 9,999)[8].

Schickard's machine was not programmable - the first design for a programmable computer came roughly 200 years later, and was provided by Charles Babbage. The first working program-controlled machine was completed more than three centuries later, by Konrad Zuse, who created the Z3 in 1941.

The Institute for Computer Science at the University of Tübingen is called the Wilhelm-Schickard-Institut für Informatik in his honor.

Notes and references

  1. a b Jean Marguin p. 48 (1994)
  2. René Taton, p. 81 (1969)
  3. a b c History of Computing Foundation. . http://www.thocp.net/biographies/schickard_wilhelm.html. Retrieved 2007-07-19. 
  4. Eric M. Nelson, "Talmudical Commonwealthsmen and the Rise of Republican Exclusivism, The Historical Journal, 50, 4 (2007), p. 826
  5. Eric M. Nelson, "Talmudical Commonwealthsmen and the Rise of Republican Exclusivism, The Historical Journal, 50, 4 (2007), p. 827
  6. Scripta Mathematica, article by Leland Locke (1933)
  7. Lynne Gladstone-Millar; p. 44 (2003)
  8. Swedin & Ferro, p. 11 (2005)