Reinventing machines: the transmission history of the Leibniz calculator

Florin Stefan MORAR*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


This paper argues that we should take into account the process of historical transmission to enrich our understanding of material culture. More specifically, I want to show how the rewriting of history and the invention of tradition impact material objects and our beliefs about them. I focus here on the transmission history of the mechanical calculator invented by the German savant Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz repeatedly described his machine as functional and wonderfully useful, but in reality it was never finished and didn't fully work. Its internal structure also remained unknown. In 1879, however, the machine re-emerged and was reinvented as the origin of all later calculating machines based on the stepped drum, to protect the priority of the German Leibniz against the Frenchman Thomas de Colmar as the father of mechanical calculation. The calculator was later replicated to demonstrate that it could function 'after all', in an effort to deepen this narrative and further enhance Leibniz's computing acumen.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-146
Number of pages24
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
Issue number1
Early online date14 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

This paper was a long time in the making and in the process I have incurred a number of debts. I wish to thank Mario Biagioli, Jimena Canales, Jeanne Peiffer, Siegmund Probst, Kapil Raj, Carsten Reinhardt, Suzanne Smith and Heidi Voskuhl, who saw versions of my manuscript and gave crucial feedback. The two anonymous reviewers have also provided detailed and immensely useful comments. I wish also to thank Matthew L. Jones, with whom I share a passion for calculating machines, for our fruitful exchange of manuscripts. I’m looking forward to the final publication of his innovative book on the history of calculating from Pascal to Babbage. Many thanks also to Professors Katharine Park and Shigehisa Kuriyama, who have supported my journey through graduate school in the friendliest, most generous and inspiring way possible. Finally, a special call-out to my friends Josh Freeman, Sungho Kimlee, Tom Wiesniewski, Ovidiu Stanciu and Radu Toderici.


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