Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1297:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1297.

Today, invention serves an unexpected purpose. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Peggy Aldrich Kidwell tells the remarkable story of Ramón Verea. Born and educated in Spain, Verea moved to Cuba in 1855. There he wrote novels and published a magazine. He came to New York City at the end of the Civil War when he was 32, and he worked on a biweekly Spanish-language newspaper.

Verea also traded Spanish gold and banknotes in New York. That got him interested in calculation. And therein lies a strange story of invention. In 1878 Verea was granted a patent for a calculating machine. Calculators had been tiptoeing into the market since 1820, and they all used repeated addition to multiply. To get 23 times 44 you'd set a machine at 23 and crank it four times to add up four 23s. Then you'd move the crank over and crank it four more times to add on four 230s. The result was 23 times 44.

Verea saw how to do the whole multiplication in one stroke of a lever. The basis of his machine was a ten-sided metal cylinder. Each side had a column of holes with ten different diameters. It worked a little like a Jaquard loom, and it was very clever. By the end of the 19th century mechanical calculators were no longer novelties. And they'd all switched over to once-through systems like Verea's.

The machine won a gold medal at a Cuban exhibition. Scientific American included an article about it. But then the sands closed over it. Verea never tried to market it. He just walked away and never invented anything else.

This brilliant machine was only an object lesson. Verea was angry at his native country for having squandered her talents. Spain grew wealthy on Aztec gold in the 16th century. Since then she'd bought manufactured goods that other countries made. As a boy Verea had watched that going on. Spain had developed no tradition of invention or manufacturing, and she'd grown poor.

So he started the Spanish language magazine El Progreso. He wrote about the engines of the late 19th century. He wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge, submarines, the new linotypes. He scolded Spain. His native land produced doctors, lawyers, and politicians, but where were the engineers? Where were Spanish-language books on the mechanical arts that shaped modern life?

Verea began his campaign with one grand act that made his point: of course Spaniards could invent! He tossed off a brilliant invention -- one machine that perfectly anticipated the next step toward digital computers. He wasn't out to make money, but to make a point. The new industries will replace the old battlefields, he said. That's where nations will define themselves henceforth.

I've said many times before that invention is self-expression. But never has it been so literally so as it was in the case of Ramón Verea -- and his astonishing calculating machine.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kidwell, P. A., Ideology and Invention: The Calculating Machine of Ramón Verea. Rittenhouse: Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise, Vol. 9, No. 2, February 1995.

I am grateful to Helen Coffeen for providing me with issues of Rittenhouse and urging me to do programs from their pages.

from Contra el Altar y el Trono, 1890

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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