Computer pioneer's wooden calculators go on show

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The Independent Online

A pioneering calculating machine invented by a forgotten 19th-century mathematician will today be seen working for the first time in 160 years.

A pioneering calculating machine invented by a forgotten 19th-century mathematician will today be seen working for the first time in 160 years.

Thomas Fowler's invention was rejected by the government of the day, and no plans survived. But after three years of work by historian Pamela Vass, two working models of his designs have been built. Both are to be unveiled in Fowler's birthplace of Torrington, Devon.

"Fowler's role in history has been completely overlooked," said Mrs Vass. "He was a down-to-earth man who was completely self-taught, but he was brilliant. In his time he received acclaim for his work, but he has been allowed to lapse into obscurity."

Fowler's first wooden calculating machine used a "ternary" system, based on three symbols instead of the more usual decimal system. He aimed to develop a metal desktop version able to perform complex calculations of up to a millionth of a farthing, a coin worth a quarter of an old penny.

Mrs Vass said: "It was a significant invention because other available adding machines were very complex or had a limited capacity, but his machine was within the reach of every clerk in the country."

Although he did not adopt the binary system later used by computers, Fowler had made a decisive move away from decimal. "He was certainly looking down the same road as early computers," Mrs Vass said.

Fowler showed his machine to London's Royal Society but could not win financial support from the government, which had already spent thousands of pounds on Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, the first device that might be considered to be a computer, conceived in 1822. Babbage's machine was never completed but was built from original drawings by a team at London's Science Museum in the 1990s.

Mrs Vass said: "The Royal Society thought they had thrown money down the drain with the Difference Engine and refused to look at Fowler's machine." His device was displayed at King's College in London in the 1840s and then dismantled and returned to his son, but he could not rebuild it and it was lost. Fowler made no drawings because he feared his design would be copied; only details in papers survived.

A Californian engineer, Mark Glusker, who has a collection of calculating machines, read about Thomas Fowler on a website set up by Mrs Vass. He managed to visualise the first ternary machine and build a wooden model of it. A second, slightly larger device by Fowler, based on the same principles, has been built by Roy Foster of Torrington.

Today both are due be unveiled at a civic reception in Torrington. They will be onexhibition at the town's museum from mid-September.

Next the Fowler enthusiasts plan to build full-sized working replicas of both machines using 19th-century techniques. Mrs Vass, who is writing a biography of Fowler, said she would also like to see the metal desk-top version built.

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