Meet Millionaire Calculator – The Fastest Multiplying Machine Of 19th Century


Image: The University of Melbourne, School of Physics Museum
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Humans began their lives from the caves, and it took us about a thousand years to enjoy the luxury of living in the sky high buildings. When our species started off, we had no way to count things as well, until the Abacus came along around 2500 B.C. Calculations started to become important in our lives. Some wise people started to develop more sophisticated devices like calculators to get rid of the time-consuming lengthy calculations. When the mechanical calculators came along, their size was that of a desktop calculator. Moreover, they used to perform agonizingly slow calculations, but they served their purpose well.

Millionaire mechanical calculator
Image Credits: History of Information

Multiplication was not the simplest of operations, and the initial calculators performed the operation by repeated additions, thus requiring many revolutions of the mechanical cranks. In 1889, French inventor Léon Bollée created the machine that could multiply with a single turn of the handle. He managed to do that by creating a mechanical representation of the multiplication table that the machine could comprehend. The only problem with the machine was its exorbitant manufacturing cost, so this calculator never took off.

Soon after, a Swiss engineer, Otto Steiger, created the Millionaire calculator with a 20 decimal digit accumulator to show the results of the multiplication. Into the same accumulator, the dividend is entered to perform the division. The sliders allow the user to enter a 10 digit multiplicand or the divisor, and the digits are entered with a push-button level on the upper left. The upper right of the device has a huge knob that can be turned to set the machine to add, multiply, divide, or subtract operations.

Image Credits: Kevin Twomey

Hans W. Egli of Zurich manufactured the machine from 1899 to 1935, advertising it as the fastest calculator available in the market. Made of brass and steel, the Millionaire weighed about 100 to 120 pounds. Its enormous weight made it quite uncomfortable to use. It was made initially for businesses, but scientists found it to be quite beneficial. It eventually became a popular demand with the governments as well. About 5,000 units of Millionaire were manufactured and sold until years later; the first hand-held Curta Calculator was born.

The Millionaire calculator package came with a printed instruction manual and a brush to keep the parts dust-free. Each unit had a price between $475 to $1,100, which is about $5,900 to $13,750 in today’s worth.

We have come a long way from this sturdy mechanical machine, the Millionaire calculator to a hand-held calculator, but still, it was a major stepping stone nonetheless. Watch a demonstration of addition and subtraction on this giant metal machine.

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