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The first calculator capable of carrying out multiplication was created by a Spaniard to try to show that the Americans should not be envied

The ‘Verea Direct Multiplier’ was the first calculator capable of direct multiplication. A machine housed in the IBM Headquarters Museum in New York and is considered the precedent for modern calculators. One of those historical artifacts of technology that was invented by Ramón Verea, a Galician journalist who was expelled from the University of Santiago de Compostela for his anti-clerical ideas.

Rather than employing multiple turns of the crank and successive additions, Verea’s machine applied a direct method that used a series of values ​​from a coded multiplication table. This is his story.

A machine that was made to demonstrate its capabilities, but without commercial interest

Ramon Verea

Ramón Verea’s first invention was a newspaper folding machine, in 1863. But he did not get funding. It was not until 1874, when he was working as a money changer between New York and Havana, in Cuba, when wanted to calculate the equivalent between the different currencies and gold, who created his calculator.

Taking advantage of an idea by Edmund Barbour, Verea built a calculator, which he later patented in 1878, where by means of a crank he had to turn it as many turns as the digits he wanted to multiply.

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Your calculator I weighed 26 kilos, with about 35 centimeters long, 23 wide and 20 high. Among the capabilities you could add and subtract as in other machines of the time, but it would also allow multiplying and dividing nine-digit numbers, with up to six numbers in the multiplier.

The first calculators date back to 1820, but to multiply what they did was add several times. For example, to have 23 x 44, what you did was set the machine to 23 and then turn the lever four times to set the first of the multiplier digits. The crank was then moved to the side and turned again four more times for the second digit. In the case, for example, of 23 x 26, what was done is to turn six times, go sideways and then twice. With the Verea machine this was totally simplified by being able to multiply directly.

Calculators that wanted to do much more than calculate

Verea’s calculator had two cylinders with different perforations and different sizes. Its operation was similar to a Jacquard loom and within a few years, mechanical calculators using this system became commonplace.

Each brass cylinder had ten sides, with ten holes. The largest was 0 and the smallest and shallowest was 9. These cylinders were exposed and what the user had to do was point them with the needles that entered them and moved more or less. Holes representing the digits and mechanical cylinders acting like multiplication tables.

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During one of the demonstrations, as described by the New York Herald, the calculator was able to multiply 698,543,721 x 807,689 in about 20 seconds. An incredible speed for the time and the maximum of its capacity, when multiplying nine figures by a six-digit multiplier. Once the multiplication was done, a safety mechanism returned all the digits to zero.

When calculators ruled the world

Despite being one of the fastest and most accurate machines of the time and being awarded at the World Invention Exhibition in Cuba in 1878, the ‘Verea Direct Multiplier’ never became a commercial success. In fact, only 3 units were manufactured.

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The origin of the invention is found in a pure desire to demonstrate its capabilities. Ramón Verea, of Galician origin, had to leave Spain but was clear that this origin did not have to be an impediment.

As is related, in an article published on April 1, 1881 in the newspaper “Las Novedades”, Verea himself described that his “object in undertaking an invention at first sight impossible was not the hope of ever reimbursing even a part of the several thousand pesos that I have spent; nor will it be with the celebrity that others for less acquired and that I do not ambition; my motives were: 1) a little self-love 2) a lot of national love, the desire to prove that in inventive genius a Spaniard can leave behind the eminences of the most cultured nations
3) the innate desire to contribute something to the advancement of science 4) and lastly, an entertainment according to my tastes and inclinations “.

Imagen | Smithsonian