Key Points

  • Hillerin de Boistissandeau was a French inventor from the early 1700s.
  • He is most famous for the “Machine of Hillerin”, which refers to three versions of an adding machine that he invented in 1730.
  • He created many things, including a clock regulator, a surveyor, and a portable barometer,

Way back in 1730, the French Academy of Sciences — one of the leading authorities on scientific and mathematical inventions, theories, and the like — granted certification to a trio of machines designed by a man named Hillerin de Boistissandeau. The first was a single-tooth carry mechanism incapable of working properly if a carry needed to be moved any more than two decimal places. The other two machines relied on the use of springs that were gradually and incrementally compressed until they unleashed their energy to move a carry forward. 

While he had no way of knowing it at the time, by utilizing the energy contained within the springs, Hillerin de Boistissandeau was able to make computer history. But what exactly was the use of this so-called Machine of Hillerin? And how did it eventually translate into the invention of the modern computers we know and use today? This history will provide the answers to these questions and more.

The Machine of Hillerin is made up of three different adding devices that were similar.

3 Facts about the Machine of Hillerin 

  • The name “Machine of Hillerin” suggests a single invention from Hillerin de Boistissandeau, but the truth is that this singular machine and its subsequent historical impact is actually derived from a trio of different adding devices that each had a similar mechanical makeup.
  • Early versions of the Machine of Hillerin would have so much energy stored within its decimal wheel that the adding device would actually break from the pressure of too much arithmetic.
  • In addition to this early predecessor to the calculator, Hillerin de Boistissandeau also invented a regulateur de parquet (also known as a clock regulator), a surveyor, and a portable barometer, among many others.

The Machine of Hillerin History

Much like the way an iPhone or a Macbook goes through different versions with each new update, Hillerin de Boistissandeau’s Machine of Hillerin had three different iterations before publication in 1730 — each one improving on flaws of the one before it. The first suffered from the aforementioned decimal wheel issue, and so the second version of Hillerin’s adding device corrected this breaking problem with a new tens place carrying mechanism. The third version improved the tens carrying mechanism once again, thus lengthening the rod that stretches the spring to decrease the diameter of the tens place wheel. Throughout its history, though, the basic mechanics of how it worked remained the same.

The Machin of Hillerin has a primary wheel that was divided into 12 parts and six digital positions.

The Machine of Hillerin: How It Worked

The Machine of Hillerin had six different digital positions, which was in line with the French monetary system of the 17th century. The rightmost position on the Machine of Hillerin was designated for deniers, a French coin that was equivalent to one-twelfth of a so (another low-valued French coin). To match these 12 deniers that make up one sou, the Machine of Hillerin’s primary wheel was divided into 12 parts. The next wheel was designated for sols, which were equivalent to one-twentieth of a pound.

As such, the sols wheel was divided into 20 parts. Each of the remaining wheels on the Machine of Hillerin was known as a decimal wheel and was designated for decimal places. Each of these consisted of 10 parts for numbers 0-9.

To enter or reset the numbers on the adding device, a person had to use a stylus with two distinct edges: one short and one long, each of which could be used to push in the openings on the wheels. This multi-edged stylus was necessary because of the way the Machine of Hillerin was designed: small disks were placed over bigger disks, with the small disks responsible for the quotient of the equation and the bigger disks responsible for the remainder.

The short edge of the stylus would only rotate the upper disks or to reset the device to zero, while the long edge of the stylus would rotate both the upper and the lower disks of the calculating mechanism. Whichever edge a person used depended entirely on what kind of adding they were doing. Regardless, the Machine of Hillerin was an extremely significant invention for its time.

The Machine of Hillerin played a very significant role in the invention of the calculator and the computer.

The Machine of Hillerin: Historical Significance

The creation of the Machine of Hillerin is just one landmark in the long and remarkable history leading up to the creation of the modern personal computer we know and use today. Adding machines such as Hillerin de Boistissandeau’s went from 18th-century novelties to 19th-century household staples. From there, the same adding technology and mechanical makeups designed by Hillerin and his contemporaries transitioned to calculators, which then incorporated keyboards and became closer in look and function to personal computers. The path is long and winding, to be sure, but make no mistake: the Machine of Hillerin helped pave the way to the invention of the calculator and eventually the computer.

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