Friday, May 09, 2008

Recreation of Ternary Calculating Machine Based on Brief Written Descriptions and a Stained Glass Window

Printer and amateur mathematician Thomas Fowler decided that a Base 3 number system would streamline his job as treasurer for the Poor Law Union. After toiling in secrecy behind his printing press, Thomas constructed a working ternary calculating machine in 1840. Haven't heard of ternary? Me neither. It is one more, duh, than binary.

Unfortunately, neither the machine nor drawings survived and the only evidence of its existence is a brief written description and church stained glass window depicting the mystery machine. From this scant history, Mark Glusker recreated the machine from the sort of plywood commonly used for dinosaur skeleton kits.

An impressive piece of mechanical and mathematical history, but you better watch the video yourself to decide if it was really a labor saving device. Its complexity may explain why it didn't catch on.

Link (Thanks, Maria!)