Tito Livio Burattini and his machine

The Calculating Machine of Tito Livio Burattini

The Italian Tito Livio Burattini (see biography of Burattini) was a typical universal genius of the late European Renaissance. He was a skilled architect, astronomer, mathematician, optician, mechanic, etc.

In 1650s Burattini created a calculating device (so called ciclografo), which in 1658 (or even before) has been donated to the Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (there are 2 letters from the Italian scientist Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, dated November and December, 1658, which mentioned istrumento o cassettina numeraria (instrument or casket for numbers) sent by Burattini to the Grand Duke.)

Ferdinando II was obsessed with new technology, and had several hygrometers, barometers, thermometers, and telescopes installed in his palace. Burattini apparently knew him very well because he served the Polish court and in 1655-1657 he took part in several diplomatic missions in Austria (Vienna) and Italy (Florence, Bologna), spending some time as a guest of the Grand Duke. It is known also that while in Florence, Burattini had designed a water clock for the Grand Duke and later made several microscope and telescope lenses for Ferdinando II’s brother, Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici. The Grand Duke obviously highly appreciated Burattini, because in August 1657, returning from his mission in Florence, Burattini brought with him in Poland many gifts of the Grand Duke, “quelques gentilesses de mécanique”.

As it was mentioned in the article for Pascaline of Blaise Pascal, around 1650 Pascal donated copies of his machine to Queen Christina of Sweden and to Maria-Luisa Gonzaga, Queen of Poland. While in the Polish court in Krakow, Burattini had the opportunity to observe the work of the Pascaline donated to his patron, the Queen. Thus in the 1650s he decided to build a similar device (like Pascal’s contrivance) himself.

Presently the machine, attributed to Burattini (see the photo below) is kept in Florence, Italy, in the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

calculating machine of Tito Livio Burratini

The calculating machine (Ciclografo) of Tito Livio Burattini from 1658 (© Museo Galileo, Firenze)

The device (complete with a wooden case) consists of a thin sheet of brass with length of 20 cm, upon which surface are mounted 18 disks. All the disks are connected 2 by 2, which means, that every upper (bigger) disk is connected to the lower (smaller) disk. By that means, carrying of numbers can be done only from an upper (bigger) disk to the lower (smaller) one, but not between different digital positions of a number.

The lower six pairs of disks are decimal (10 graduations—from 0 to 9), while the upper pairs of disks are graduated from 1 to 12, from 1 to 19, and from 1 to 7 respectively (from the left to the right), in order to be used for monetary calculations (Italy had no unified currency in 17th century, since it has been for centuries divided into many city-states, but for example according to the Venice and Tuscany monetary systems: 1 Ducato=7 Lire, 1 Lira=20 Soldi, 1 Soldo=12 Denari, etc.)

Recently a new version (and it seems rather well-grounded) for the above-mentioned device, attributed to Burattini, was proposed by the historian Vanessa Ratcliff. Exploring Samuel Morland and Morland’s calculating machines, she not only noticed the well-known fact, that Burattini’s machine is quite similar to one of the devices of Morland, but also examined at some length the inventory information for the Burattini’s machine to make the conclusion, that the present machine was not the original one of Burattini.

Yet the first note for the machine (from Borelli in November, 1658) mentioned the device as “casket”, not as “plate” or “sheet”. There are also several inventory records for the Medicean scientific collection (from 1660, 1704, 1738), which described the machine of Burattini as an eight wheels device, with size about 43 x 12 cm. However, in the catalogue from 1779, the machine is described as Una macchinetta forse aritmetica di due lastre di ottone centinate che racchiudono 18 cerchi tra grandi e piccoli, numerati, imperniati, e da muoversi a mena dito. La macchinetta ha la faccia dorata, ed è lunga nel più pollici 7.3… (a small machine, probably arithmetic, made of two ribbed brass plates that enclose 18 large and small circles, numbered, hinged and to be operated with fingers. The machine has golden face and is 7.3 inches long…)

So it seems an entirely different machine, not only by appearance, but also by dimensions (21 cm long, with 18 wheels, while the first machine was 43 cm long and had 8 wheels.) Interestingly enough, the new description fits perfectly with the present object from the Florence Museum, but not with the description of the original machine of Burattini. So what happened?

The most probable version is the following: Burattini did make in 1650s a Pascaline-like calculator (first descriptions of the device fit quite well with the 8-wheels Pascaline), which he donated to the Grand Duke. Some time between 1738 and 1779 the machine sank into obscurity (it is known that in 1746 almost the whole Medicean scientific collection was sent to Vienna, while the Florence collection was enriched with many pieces from Lorrainese Chamber of Physics of Lunéville, under the supervision of the famous french mechanician Phillippe Vayringe (1684-1746), mentioned in the article for calculating machines of Anton Braun, as the maker of one of the machines. Probably during this period the original device was lost or sent to Vienna, while the present device was included into the Florence collection.)

So it seems the present machine is a later device (very similar to the money adder of Morland), made by an unknown maker and mistakenly attributed to Burattini, while the original machine of Burattini unfortunately had been lost.

  1) Ratcliff, J. R., “Samuel Morland and his Calculating Machines c.1666: the Early Career of a Courtier–Inventor in Restoration London”. Brit. J. Hist. Science, 40(2), 2007, pp. 159–179.
  2) Hénin S., Early Italian Computing Machines and their Inventors, in: A. Tatnall (ed.), Reflections on the History of Computing, Springer, 2012, pp. 204-230.