Anker Restaurant Cash Register 150-99 E at Heinz Nixdorf Museumsforum (Photo by Tomas Vogt)

Being a human activity, calculation has a history, even if its operations yield “facts” apparently true in any context. One plus one might always be two, but the methods to arrive at such results, not to mention what they might mean, are another matter. Recent histories involving calculation on this blog include Staffan Müller-Wille and Giuditta Parolini, “Punnett Squares and Hybrid Crosses: How Mendelians Learned Their Trade by the Book”; D. Senthil Babu, “Handbooks of the Mind into Ready Reckoners in Print: The Story of the ‘Encuvati’ in the Nineteenth Century”; and Karine Chemla, “Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’…”

Lorraine Daston took up calculation for the GHI’s Annual Lecture last November, tracing how such reckoning transformed from a mental activity requiring “intelligence” to rote, mechanistic procedures that on the surface had nothing to do with related efforts to develop artificial intelligence in machines. That lecture now appears in the most recent issue of the GHI Bulletin under the heading “Calculation and the Division of Labor, 1750–1950.” It begins,

The scene is a school room, in almost any epoch and any locale: it might be the house of an ancient Babylonian scribe, in which father taught son in learned lineages that stretched over centuries; or in Song Dynasty China, as students prepared for the imperial civil service examinations; or in fourteenth-century France, where an allegorized Geometria instructed cathedral school pupils; or nineteenth-century Prussia, whose schoolmasters had allegedly delivered a military victory over the French in 1870. In all of these classrooms, dispersed over centuries and continents, students would have been taught some version of the three fundamental cultural techniques that underlie all other cognitive practices in literate societies: reading, writing, and calculation. We have rich and vast histories of reading and writing; yet we barely have the rudiments of a history of calculation. Why not? This lecture is an attempt to answer that question. . . . Continue reading