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
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
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