From 1947—Office Automation Before the Computer

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The precision of such devices, created without digital tech assistance, is amazing. It must represent the golden age of mechanics and machining. It would be interesting to trace an “evolutionary tree” of such mechanical devices, to see how a given kind of device evolved into its successors. This occurs to me because I have been thinking how fascinating it would be to see such an “evolutionary tree” for computer hardware and software. The successive problems created at each stage of successful development likely resulted in the necessity of solutions for the new problems created or ideas for better devices/code. I would love to see such an overview of computer history/evolution. From my non-tech, mere end user of consumer devices, it looks like a chaotic forest. In reality, I bet it is anything but.


Interestingly, in some mechanical devices with a long history of manufacture, there is evidence of devolution as successive “enhancements” to the original device were done with cheaper parts, more sloppy tolerances, and less robust design. A fine example of this is the Friden electromechanical desktop calculators which were the primary number crunchers before computers came on the scene. The original design was admantine in its integrity and reliability: it was designed so that anything which might cause it to produce a wrong answer would cause the mechanism to jam instead, and there was no slop: it was all tightly meshed gears.

Then they added more digits to the carriage, with hacks, kludges, and cheap parts. And then, later, they added features like being able to transfer a value from the result register back to the keyboard as an input. This involved flippy-floppy-sloppy cables in wire sheaths which were fragile and prone to failure.

You can see some of this in the following video on repairing the extended precision carry of a Friden calculator. Note the difference between the original design and the add-on extra digits.

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My dad had a similar mechanical calculater when I was a pre-teen, IIRC. Broken at some point. He let me take it apart to try to fix it. Definitely too much for my immature skills. I couldn’t put it back together, and it was eventually junked.

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