Izrael Staffel

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
Harry S. Truman

Izrael Abraham Staffel (1814-1885)
Izrael Abraham Staffel (1814-1885)

Around 1835 the young Warsaw watchmaker ans inventor Izrael Abraham Staffel (1814-1885) commenced building in his workshop at Marszałkowska str. 125 an advanced first calculating machine, spending his meager funds. It took him ten years to finish the device, which was demonstrated to the public as late as in 1845.

Staffel was a Polish Jew, who was born and lived in the capital Warsaw (then part of Russian Empire) all his life. He was a watchmaker and mechanic, who spent most of his life on developing various inventions, primarily calculating machines, for which he obtained multiple prizes, but he also invented other devices, such as an anemometer, a powerful fan, a probe for determining the contents of alloys, a counter-fitting machine, etc.

The distinguished Jewish historian Jacob Shatzky (1893-1956) asserts that Staffel was a relative of Abraham Jakub Stern. If this is true, probably Staffel was inspired by Stern and received from him valuable information about construction of the calculating machines. Anyway, it is hard to believe that the young watchmaker Staffel didn’t know Abraham Stern, who was one of the most remarkable figures in the Warsaw Jewish community during the first decades of 19th century, and who also used to work as a watchmaker in his youth.

Staffel commenced his occasions with calculating machines around 1835, but since he lived in poverty, his first machine, based on pin-wheels mechanism of Leibniz and Poleni, was ready in 1842 and was demonstrated at the industrial exhibit in Warsaw as late as in 1845 (by recommendation from the Minister Sergey Uvarov (Серге́й Семёнович Ува́ров), and it received a silver medal (now this machine is preserved in the Museum of Technology in Warsaw, see the lower photo).

Staffel’s machine (property of Muzeum Techniki in Warsaw, Poland)
Staffel’s first machine (© Muzeum Techniki in Warsaw, Poland). A walnut box with dimensions: length 26 cm, depth 14 cm, closed height 16 cm, diameter of the wheels is about 8 cm. The machine has an additional function that enables conversion between zlotys and rubles.

In the Polish press after the exhibition was written that the machine particularly accelerated the division and multiplication operations. Author of one of the articles even expressed his opinion that:
… the thirteen-digit product resulting of multiplying the number by a six-digit multiplier you can get in 50 seconds, while multiplying on paper the usual way even when the multiplier is folded from nines alone (999999), the product is obtained in just 1¼ minute. The same shortening can be achieved also in division.

After the exhibition the governor of Warsaw gave Staffel 150 rubles on a trip to St. Petersburg to present the machine to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Thus in 1846 Staffel traveled to the Russian capital to demonstrate his machine (accompanied with a handwritten description of 71 Russian and 57 Polish pages plus 3 color drawings) and was very positively assessed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Two famous mathematicians, Viktor Bunyakovsky (later creator of a calculating device also, Самосчеты Буняковского) and Moritz Jacobi, gave it a very positive opinion and Staffel was awarded with the very prestigious Demidov prize. Later on the machine was presented to the Russian Emperor Nikolai I, who was so astonished with this invention, that he ordered the substantial sum of 1500 silver rubles to be paid to the inventor.

A drawing from Staffel's presentation to the Russian Academy in 1846.
A drawing of Staffel’s pin-wheel mechanism from presentation to the Russian Academy in 1846.

Interestingly, in his presentation to the Russian Academy, Staffel mentioned the names of previous inventors of calculating machines, like Leibnitz, Hahn, Babbage, Müller and Stern, but didn’t mention where he found the idea of pin-wheel mechanism, which he used in his machine (see the nearby image). It is known, that the first sketch of such mechanism can be found in a manuscript of Leibniz, the first practical implementation was that of Poleni in 1709, then Braun in 1720s, and Roth and Staffel around 1840. Staffel even mentioned that Leibnitz spent 24000 thalers on his machine, Babbage spent 1700 pound sterling, and Stern spent 10000 thalers.

Later on Staffel improved his first machine, placing the calculating mechanism on a movable rail, and manufactured a calculating machine for adding, subtracting, multiplication and division (plus square-root). In 1851, the improved machine was exposed to the Great Exposition in Crystal Palace in London, where it was awarded with a gold medal. The report, describing the calculating machines presented at the Exposition, says the following about Staffel’s machine: “The best machine of this kind exhibited is that of Staffel (Russia, 148), which, on examination, seems to combine accuracy with economy of time, and works easily and directly”.
The machine was evaluated higher than the machine of Thomas de Colmar, which was a real sensation. The newspaper Illustrated London News also published an enthusiastic article, with the description of the machine and its picture: “In the Russian Court, modestly secluded amidst the glitter of malachite doors and vases, jewelry and silver, there is one work, the produce of high intelligence, and intended to assist in certain intellectual labors. This solitary tribute of mind to minds comes not from Petersburg, nor Mexico [meant Moscow], nor from Siberia, nor from the Ural Mountains, but from Poland. We refer to Staffel’s Calculating Machine, №148 in the Catalogue”.

In the Jewish Chronicle newspaper from Nov. 1851 was mentioned that:
Liberality of the Prince Albert. – It must be a source of great delight to our brethren, to be made acquainted with the munificent liberality of the royal consort of our beloved Queen towards a humble mechanic of the house of Israel. The liberality of his Royal Highness has been exercised in the case of J. A. Staffel, of Warsaw, the inventor of the calculating machine, etc. , which was exhibited in the Russian department of the Crystal Palace, who has received from his Royal Highness a cheque for 20 l. as an acknowledgement of his Royal Highness’s appreciation of Mr. Staffel’s ingenious invention.
Since writing the above, we are glad to hear that Baron L. Rothschild, M. P., also presented our scientific brother with a cheque for 10 l. as a due acknowledgment of Jewish talent.

Drawing of the Staffel’s machine in the Illustrated London News
Drawing of Staffel’s machine in the Illustrated London News, 20 Sep. 1851

Let’s quote also the description of the machine in the newspaper Illustrated London News, No. 518, 20 Sep. 1851:


The machine is of the size of an ordinary toilet: the mechanism is 18 inches by 9, and about 4 inches high. The external mechanism represents three rows of ciphers. The first and upper row, containing 13 ciphers, is immovable; the second and third, containing 7 ciphers, are movable. To the right is a semicircular ring, containing the words Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, Division and Extraction. Underneath is a hand, which serves as a regulator for the operation, pointing ad libitum to either of the four rules or the square root, whichever is to be worked. The advantage which this machine has above others are as follows:
1. That the four rules and the square root, with fractions, can be worked by means of a curved handle (which in itself is a piece of mechanism), showing the various sums alternatively, without being obliged to note down any auxiliary figure, as is the case with all other calculating machines.
2. That all compound rules, as the rule of three, of five, etc., can be worked by transposition of the regulator, without shifting any of the figures.
3. That, if by subtraction a larger number is subtracted from a smaller, the sound of a bell is heard, indicating the false proceeding; and when turning the handle a negative number shows itself in the upper row, where, instead of the 13 ciphers, the figure 9 will appear in their place, and which, added to the number given, will prove the inverted position of the number. The bell will also be heard if, by division, the handle is turned once too many. A retractive move of the handle will then retrieve the error.
4. That the entire mechanism is of a simple construction, the parts acting without springs, its correctness and accuracy secured, and the efficiency of the mechanism guaranteed.
<<  End of quote  >>


Let’s see also the description of Staffel’s calculating machine in the official document of the London Exhibition (see below the section Calculating Machines from Reports by the Juries, Great Exhibit, London, 1851):


Calculating Machines
There have been very many attempts to perform numerical calculations by mechanical means, or at least such parts of them as follow simple and rigid laws. Hitherto instruments have failed to unite correctness in the results, combined with economy of time, and, for the most part, have been limited to the performance of the first two operations of arithmetic.
To make such instruments really useful, they must have the power of executing, by themselves, the operations for the solution of the problem imposed on them, when the simple data for this problem have been introduced, without trial, and without guess-work.
The best machine of this kind exhibited is that of Staffel (Russia, 148), which, on examination, seems to combine accuracy with economy of time, and works easily and directly. The mechanism is 8 inches in length, 9 inches in breadth, and 4 inches in height, and consists of three rows of vertical cylinders; the first contains 18, the second 7, and the third 7. Upon each of the cylinders in the first row are 10 notches, corresponding with the units 1 to 10. Within each of these cylinders is a small pulley, in connection with a lever, set in motion by a slider which, when the cylinder has turned from either 9 to 0, or 0 to 9, sets in motion the lever, and communicates its action to wheels, which carry over the figures. The pulley connected with the cylinder, the furthest from the handle, is in connection with the hammer of a bell. The purpose of this bell is to give warning to the operator, on committing an error, and constitutes a most important addition to the machine, particularly in the operation of division.
Upon each of the cylinders in the second row 10 units are placed. These seven cylinders are so fixed upon their axes, that they can bodily be moved right and left, and fixed at any part, so that the in the cyphers in the two cylinders can be made to correspond. This cylinder is with a spike, which lays hold of and works the third row of cylinders.
The internal communication of each of the parts is brought about by means of a wheel, furnished with nine moveable pegs, which are set in motion by means of an eccentric incision in the dial.
The machine is capable of performing addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and of extracting the square root.
The operation of addition is performed as follows:
By simply placing one line of the numbers upon the second row of cylinders (the index pointing to addition), and turning the handle, till it stops, these numbers are transferred instantly to the first row of cylinders, and so on successively, till all the numbers to be added are transferred, and their sum is shown on the top row.
In performing subtraction, the first part of the operation is the same as in addition, but on placing the second line of figures on the second row of cylinders, the pointer being placed to subtraction, the handle is turned the opposite way, or against the motion of the sun, and the difference of the two numbers is shown on the upper line.
The operation of multiplication is performed by placing the multiplier and the multiplicand on the second and third rows of cylinders, and then, the index pointing to multiplication, the product will be found on the first cylinder.
The operation of division is very similar, excepting that the handle is turned as in subtraction.
These several operations were performed accurately, and with dispatch.
In the performance of the square root, the following additional mechanism needs explanation. Between every division of the cylinder, in row 2, a small wheel is placed, and near it a projecting piece which acts upon a lever; when the projecting piece is near the word “rad” engraved on the cylinder, on turning the handle, the figures increase by 1. This, by other mechanism, is connected with the other two rows of cylinders. The operation of the square root is performed directly, without any guessing at numbers; but it is, comparatively, rather a long process.
Upon the whole it must be considered that Mr. Staffel has made an instrument possessed of considerable powers, and that great praise is due to him. The double motion of the handle as well as the warning bell are important improvements.
Mr. Staffel also exhibits a small mechanical machine for the performance of the addition and subtraction of fractions, whose denominators are 10, 12, and 15. By enlarging the machine, this number would be increased, and the power of the instrument extended. The operations were performed with quickness, and with accurate results. A Prize Medal was voted to Mr. Staffel.
<<  End of quote  >>


Even many years later, in the Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition, 1867, Staffel’s machine is praised in Chapter XVIII “Metrology and Mechanical Calculation”: Of the numerous calculating machines which have been proposed or constructed since that of Mr. Thomas became an ascertained success, those of Messrs. Maurel & Jayet of France, and of Mr. Staffel of Russia, are the only ones which, so far as is known, have solved the problem in a manner entirely satisfactory.

Besides the above-mentioned calculating machine, Staffel invented also another simpler calculating device (in total he designed four different types of calculating machines). One of them (see the picture below), is now preserved in Braunsweig Landesmuseum, Germany. This model of the calculating machine was demonstrated by Staffel in 1858, and was awarded at an exhibition in Warsaw. Named by Staffel’s liczebnik kieszonkowy (pocket numeral machine), it was a seven-digit calculating device, used for addition and subtraction.

Staffel’s adding machine (from the magazine Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 1867)
Staffel’s adding machine (from the magazine Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 1867)

In 1876 Staffel handed over the most famous of his machines, the 13-digit arithmometer to the Physical Cabinet of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, but is seems the device has been lost.

Biography of Izrael Abraham Staffel

The Polish Jew Izrael Abraham Staffel (Polish: Izrael Abraham Sztafel, Russian: Израиль Авраам Штафель) was born in 1814 to an impoverished Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. He was the son of Lewek Staffel (Лейвик Штафель) and Gryna Izrael Staffel (Грина Израилевна Штафель), and had an elder sister—Estera Lewek Stafell (Эстер Левиковнa Штафель) (died 1875).

His primary education Izrael got at an elementary religious Jewish school, and later entered as an apprentice in a watchmaking factory. There he learned the Polish language, which enabled him to read scientific and technical books and deepen his professional knowledge.

In 1833, when he was only 19, Staffel obtained a concession and opened a watch-maker shop in Warsaw (at Marszałkowska str. 125), and several years later he opened another workshop at Grzybowskiej str. 982, where he worked till the end of his life. Despite being a diligent and talented watchmaker, Staffel obviously was a poor businessman, because his workshop did not prosper.

Staffel was married (at least) twice. We know nothing about his first wife(s), but there is a record from 20 January 1845 for the marriage of Izrael Sztafel (divorced), to Frajda Nuta Amerykaner (b. 1827). No records for children.

Staffel spent most of his life on developing various inventions, primarily the calculating machines, for which he obtained multiple prizes, but he also invented other devices, such as an anemometer, Ventilator Helis (a powerful fan, which was installed at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, as well as at the Noble Institute and in the hospital of St. Spirit), a probe for determining the contents of alloys, a counter-fitting machine, an automatic taximeter for cabs, and a two-color printing press, used for printing stamps and banknotes (on this machine in 1860 was printed the first Polish post stamp, the so-called Poland No. 1, in the Stempel Factory in Warsaw). Staffel also made room fans, called helix-shaped blades, intended for removing smoke from kerosene lamps, cigars, etc.

Unfortunately, Staffel did not manage to patent any of his inventions and died extremely poor after long illness in 1885 in Warsaw. In his obituary is written that he was very modest, and glory and recognition didn’t interested him, so his death remained almost unnoticed.