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Reckoning with Matter

Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage

Reckoning with Matter

Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage

From Blaise Pascal in the 1600s to Charles Babbage in the first half of the nineteenth century, inventors struggled to create the first calculating machines. All failed—but that does not mean we cannot learn from the trail of ideas, correspondence, machines, and arguments they left behind.
In Reckoning with Matter, Matthew L. Jones draws on the remarkably extensive and well-preserved records of the quest to explore the concrete processes involved in imagining, elaborating, testing, and building calculating machines. He explores the writings of philosophers, engineers, and craftspeople, showing how they thought about technical novelty, their distinctive areas of expertise, and ways they could coordinate their efforts. In doing so, Jones argues that the conceptions of creativity and making they exhibited are often more incisive—and more honest—than those that dominate our current legal, political, and aesthetic culture.

336 pages | 54 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Computer Science

History: European History, History of Technology

History of Science

Philosophy: General Philosophy


"Rather than being yet another history of calculating machines, this book rises much higher by its scholarly examination, explanation, and interpretation of that history from the perspectives of computational mathematics, philosophy, logic, mechanical engineering capabilities, artisan skills, intellectual property, and the creative process itself. Starting from the primary difficulty of carrying tens on a mechanical device, the author provides an invigorating journey through the inventive process of calculating machines from 1600 to 1830, while introducing readers to the creations—ideas, justification, machines, and failures—of Pascal, Morland, Leibniz, Hooke, Babbage, Clement, and Stanhope. In each case, the author carefully details why the proposed models or dreams could not be realized as physical models, especially as marketable tools. The last chapter weighs the significance of 18th-century calculating machines on mathematics, as well as the processes of thinking and creation. The excellent chapter notes, reference list, and index complement the book. In summary, this book is exceptional and succeeds at its proposed task; more so, it offers both an approach and standard that more historians of technology should emulate—critically interweaving theory, practice, and results. Essential."


“Matthew Jones tells the surprisingly long story of how calculation came to be mechanized, and uses this meandering tale of try, try, try again to make a deep point about the history of technology….The duo “inventors and artisans” is key to Jones’s argument. As he demonstrates in fascinating detail, almost all of these machines, including Charles Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines, faltered when they came to realizing a paper design in metal, wood, ivory, and other materials. Only those inventors who worked closely with artisans—whose improvisations often altered the original designs in significant ways—came anywhere near to achieving success.... The moral of this part of Jones’s story is that matter matters—and so does skill, hand and mind working in tandem.”

Lorraine Daston | Critical Inquiry

“[A] deep, far-reaching, and thoroughly enjoyable journey through the varied and colorful landscapes of early modem Europe. He introduces us to sites, niches, and nooks in which artisans, philosophers, noblemen, monarchs, agents, bishops, and lawyers lived, worked, studied, governed, traded, negotiated, complained, corresponded, and argued with each other. . . . His material and analyses are so rich and original that one is tempted to give the field that his book circumscribes its own name. . . . Matt Jones’s erudition and trustworthiness, and his unusual ability to communicate with his readers and guide them through very demanding material, through both very close and very varied readings, as well as through bold claims, are always a pleasure and gratifying to be part of. He is a role model for all historians in these regards.”

Journal of Modern History

"Innovative in its approach and its form, Reckoning with Matter offers a thoughtful and beautifully written history of technology that offers an important perspective on a division between two poles of writing the history of technology. Readers will not only enjoy a compelling account of machine calculation through the nineteenth century, but will also find the story of a frog that tears out the eyes of a fish, a man who designed machines for making breakfast, and discussions of the significance of credit and intellectual property, modern programming, sketching, imitation, and debates over the nature of thinking. Highly recommended!"

New Books Network

“Jones anchors his inquiry firmly in the material world by retelling the story of the failed efforts to create calculating machines from Blaise Pascal in the 1640s to Charles Babbage in the early nineteenth century. Yet, as Jones’ account brings to bear, the laborious and generally unsuccessful instantiation of these designs were possibly more revealing in themselves than had they succeeded. Jones sets out to challenge our deepest assumptions about the creative process otherwise too often held to oscillate between ‘the collective, deterministic account of inventive activity and the individualistic, heroic, creative account’. Instead, he offers an account which cuts through these bifurcations and seeks to relocate technological design and production in its social, cultural and political context…. [U]ndeniably a most useful contribution to the field.”

Global Intellectual History

Reckoning with Matter provides a groundbreaking view into the archaeology of the thinking machine. Jones deftly takes us through the tricky materiality, tense negotiations, conceptual reconfigurations, and mechanical constraints faced by Pascal, Leibniz, the irascible Babbage, and many others in bringing their blueprints of calculating machines into reality. Before a machine could be made to do what every schoolchild now learns—how to carry a digit from one column of addition to another—the roles between philosophers, artisans, and mechanics had to be redefined, parts had to be standardized, and an entire cultural logic which prized emulation and gradual, collective improvement had to be replaced by the cult of the individual inventor. Going back over two and a half centuries before Turing, the meaning of thought, creativity, and the limits of the human were already at stake in the protracted efforts to build a machine that adds and subtracts. This fascinating journey through the material and mental workshops of a panoply of protocomputers and the politics of getting them built is much more than a formidable history of the early–modern roots of the digital age: it’s a boldly innovative, sophisticated, and eminently emulable example of how to make sense of the interwoven histories of science, labor, property, and technology.”

John Tresch, University of Pennsylvania

Reckoning with Matter is a unique contribution to the history of calculating machines, their designers, the craftsmen who created them, and the interplay between the various groups. Jones not only details the inner workings of some of the machines but also provides a good look at some of the lesser–known creators such as Stanhope, Hahn, Müller, and others. With an extensive use of wonderful primary sources, Jones produces an insight that is rarely seen in the literature on calculating machines. Reckoning with Matter will fascinate.”

Michael R. Williams, emeritus, University of Calgary

“Jones offers a sharp new argument about the sources of creativity in science and technology. This history of early-modern calculating engines—carefully gleaned from the cryptic notes of savants like Leibniz and the sketches of their artisanal collaborators—shows how novelty was discovered ‘in the making’ and not through the imposition of thought on matter. The descriptions are vivid and offer fascinating insights into the ways such machines did (and didn't!) work. In the process, the book tracks the fitful route by which ‘originality’ came to be the basis of intellectual property. Clever, detailed, and assembled with an originality all its own, Reckoning with Matter will certainly find an eager audience.”

Ken Alder, Northwestern University

"A fine study."


Table of Contents

1          Carrying Tens: Pascal, Morland, and the Challenge of Machine Calculation           
First Carry           Babbage and Clement Mechanize Table Making 
2          Artisans and Their Philosophers: Leibniz and Hooke Coordinate Minds, Metal, and Wood           
Second Carry       Babbage Gets Funded   
3          Improvement for Profit: Calculating Machines and the Prehistory of Intellectual Property 
Third Carry          Babbage Claims His Property
4          Reinventing the Wheel: Emulation in the European Enlightenment 
Fourth Carry        Babbage Confronts Prior Art 
5          Teething Problems: Charles Stanhope and the Coordination of Technical Knowledge from Geneva to Kent           
Fifth Carry Babbage’s Collaborators Emulate   
6          Calculating Machines, Creativity, and Humility from Leibniz to Turing      
Final Carry Epilogue    


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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