Number is up for geekiness

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Witches were still being burned at the stake. The English Civil War had just begun. And Isaac Newton was barely a toddler.

But even in the early 1640s calculators were being used by the less than numerate to solve mathematical problems.

Blaise Pascal's 1642 Pascaline mechanical calculator is among items on display at Calculator: from the abacus to the microchip, a new exhibition at the Museum of Computing, in Swindon. The exhibition, due to open on March 7, has been described by gadget magazine T3 as "the geekiest of all time".

But Simon Webb, the curator, hopes it will have appeal beyond the classroom coterie of number-crunchers. "One of the appeals is the sheer diversity of devices used," he said. "Also the design aspects. There's a gold-plated calculator that is a thing of beauty.

"But it is also about the people who used these things, and the problems they had. It's about social history."

The exhibition recounts the history of the comptometer, invented in 1893, which operated like a numerical typewriter. Working a comptometer was as prestigious a career for a young woman as touch-typing, and the machines were popular for almost 80 years.

"In wartime air raids, operators had to pick up their heavy comptometers and take them into the shelters with them," said Mr Webb. "They were expensive machines."

The exhibition also includes pocket calculators pioneered by Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor, in the 1970s. Many are now collectors' items, sold for large amounts. Mr Webb said: "People take calculators for granted.

They're disappearing into mobile phones and into wristwatches, but it is fantastic to see how they've evolved since the abacus.

"Is this geeky? I've been collecting calculators for almost 10 years now.

It was once an underground pursuit, and now it's mainstream. Geeky is almost trendy now. It's the new cool."

Cheryl Periton, honorary secretary of the Association of Maths Teachers, said: "Pupils tend to see the calculator as ancient history. But I got my first one in 1979, when I was already a teacher. Pupils can look at old equipment and say, gosh, that used to be in schools.

"This could be a gateway into maths for some pupils. Stimulating maths teaching can get away from the geeky image."

Barry Runham, head of maths at Churchfields comprehensive, in Swindon, welcomes the exhibition. "It will appeal to those who like little gizmos,"

he said. "But others see maths as something they have to learn, not something they want to do. I don't think the museum is going to have to call crowd control."

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