Think You Could Use These Medieval Calculators?

By Phineas Upham

Calculations are an important part of everyday life. There may be a case for not using Algebra in your daily life, but knowing how to balance your checkbook or audit a project budget for your office space is crucial to your employment and general well being. Even taking a trip requires knowledge of how to budget funds from what you already have, calculate estimate expenses and determine how much money you’ll need to make that trip safely.

Today, these calculations are done on our phones or a computer. In the 16th and 17th century, merchants and business owners tackled these same problems and created ingenuous devices to solve their problems. Still, as advanced as we’ve become these ancient instruments might look foreign to most of us.

The Abacus

Most of us encountered an abacus in school. The idea was to create a wooden frame with a series of rods that contained discs one could use to count. Using ten beads on each slide made it easy to keep count of what one had already worked on, such as counting grains from multiple storehouses. Rods could show thousands of entries, allowing for more accurate bookkeeping.

It’s also likely that the term “bean counter”, used to refer to accountants, can trace its origins to these devices.

Slide Rule

Slide rules use logarithms to solve complex equations, and they have been an important part of math and science up until the 1980s. It’s very likely both your parents and grandparents had to use one, and even possible that some of you grew up on them before making the transition to a Texas Instruments calculator. In fact, a Pickett model slide rule was used in the calculations that first sent a man to the moon.

About the Author: Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Facebook page.