Martin Wiberg

No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth.

Martin Wiberg (1826-1905) with his machine from 1875.
Martin Wiberg (1826-1905) with his machine from 1875.

In the middle 1850s the Swede Martin Olsson Wiberg (1826-1905), a Doctor of Philosophy from Lund University and amateur mechanic, became very interested in the printing business and had the intention of developing a composing machine. In 1854, Wiberg was in London to show off a setting machine, i.e. a line casting machine that set and cast a line in lead. In order to raise money for this venture, he decided to publish a set of interest tables, hoping to use the machine of his compatriot Pehr-Georg Scheutz for computing and printing these tables. The machine of Scheutz was however already sold to the Dudley Observatory, that’s why Wiberg decided to construct his own raknemaskin (calculating machine).

Wiberg wanted to build a machine, similar to Scheutz’s, but that would be much smaller. In the late 1850s, after only six months of work, he managed to build a successful desk-size (one-tenth the size of Scheutz’s machine) calculating machine and the interest tables appeared in 1860. This enterprise however became a failure for Wiberg, because the tables failed to sell due to their bad looks.

It was a bad start, but fortunately, later Wiberg managed to obtain the support of a group of influential Swedes, including the Duke of Östergötland (the future King) Oscar II of Sweden, and a group of scientists and capitalists formed the Wibergska Tabell-Aktiebolaget. The company took over ownership of the machine and future publications. Wiberg received 120 shares and 40000 riksdalers. With capital and heavy backing, Wiberg’s life was at least temporarily secured, and he was able in 1875 to publish logarithm tables in Swedish, German, English, and French. The Riksdag gave him 8000 riksdaler as a national reward and the King gave him the Order of the North Star. The machine received several medals at expositions and the French Academy of Sciences invited the inventor to Paris to demonstrate his calculator, where it received favorable notice, was described in a special report, and Emperor Napoleon III awarded him the Legion of Honor.

The difference engine of Wiberg (Courtesy Tekniska Museet, Stockholm)
An early version of the raknemaskin of Wiberg (© Tekniska Museet, Stockholm)

The machine of Wiberg had the same capacity as the machine of Scheutz, it could compute fourth differences of 15-digit numbers. Instead of the rectangular array of number wheels, that had characterized the Scheutz machines, however, the machine of Wiberg was made more compact (weight= 16.6 kg, width 220 mm, length 420 mm, height 230 mm; materials used: metal, copper alloy (copper, brass, bronze)) by substituting identical metal disks for the counting wheels used by Babbage and Scheutz, and by arranging these linearly along a common axis. This meant that 75 disks were arranged in 15 groups of 5, each group corresponding to the tabular values and the first, second, third, and fourth difference, arranged from left to right. A second axis, parallel to the first, carried thirty hooks, which could cause as many of the disks to be acted upon at the same time, making possible the simultaneous addition of two sets of 15-digit figures. Thus, one of the operating features of the Scheutz machine had been preserved: one turn of the crank caused even differences to be added, another turn, odd ones; carrying was again effected separately after the rest of the addition had been completed. Results were once more impressed on lead or papier-mache, from which stereotype plates could be produced.

The academy’s reporting committee pointed out in his report from 1863, that the machine could do nothing that the Scheutz machine had not done, but commended it for its efficient mechanical construction, which had led to a substantial saving of space and utmost reliability.

Difference engine of Wiberg with his book of tables from 1875 (Courtesy Tekniska Museet, Stockholm)
Difference engine of Wiberg with his book of tables from 1875 (© Tekniska Museet, Stockholm)

Martin Wiberg was an outstanding inventor, whose contributions ranged from mechanical letterboxes, heating devices for railroad carriage components, speed controls, match-manufacturing machines to self-propelled torpedoes, and automatic breech-loading weapons, a cream separator, etc. His calculator became especially well known through a set of logarithm tables, which included logarithms of the trigonometric functions, and appeared in 1875. It was published in Swedish, German, French, and English editions, appearing in 1876, in time to be included among Sweden’s contributions to the International “Centennial” Exposition held at Philadelphia that year, where it joined his “bull-dog apparatus” for deep-sea sounding (this machine was awarded a prize at the Exposition) and railway control device.

Biography of Martin Wiberg

Martin Wiberg (1826-1905)
Martin Wiberg (1826-1905)

Martin Olsson Wiberg was born on 4 September 1826, in Viby, a locality near Kristianstad, Scania County, Sweden. He was the first son of the local farmer Ola Jeppson (Wiberg) (1802-1879), and Elna Trulssdotter (1803-1876). Before Martin, the family had a daughter (who died in infancy), and after Martin, they had two more girls: Marna and Kjersti, and five boys: Nils Olof, Truls, Jöns, Pehr Olof, and Anders. Wiberg was a well-to-do farming family, and with great sacrifices, the parents ensured that four of the six sons became “educated men”.

Martin was so fragile as a child, that he was not expected to live for a long time, but he survived. The skinny and shy boy had no interest in anything but books. After attending a high school in Kristianstad, where he was noticed, in the autumn of 1845, Martin Wiberg enrolled at Lund University to study medicine, but for financial reasons, after three terms he turned to the study of science and became a Doctor of Philosophy in 1850. The academic career was open for Martin, but he chose the inventor’s path.

All his life Wiberg has been employed almost exclusively with practical mechanics and made numerous beautiful inventions in this area. However, like many other inventors, Wiberg was completely lacking in business acumen and the ability to make his ideas profitable for himself. For example, in 1896, Wiberg received a patent (pat. No. 7304) for a “spectral instrument”, equipped with a keyboard so that different colored light rays could be evoked when different keys were pressed and thereby “create a play of colors which, according to the changing of the colors, evokes different impressions on the eye and different physiological effects on the objects, which is thereby affected”. Wiberg considered that the effect of light on the sense of sight should under certain circumstances be able to produce as pleasant sensations as the air-valley rings, converted into tones, have on hearing. Intending to create a “tone opera”, Wiberg devoted himself to the invention, and Alfred Nobel himself is said to have been willing to assist with the necessary capital (in May 1896 Nobel wrote a letter to the inventor, stating The idea is so ingenious, that I’d like to congratulate the author of it), but the completion was thwarted by Nobel’s death in Dec 1896.

Being widely famous, but still poor, Wiberg considered moving to the United States and wrote to the famous American naval engineer and inventor John Ericsson (1803-1889), who gave him praise but also a very discouraging picture of the possibilities in the USA:
“If the tables sent were calculated and printed by the same machine, I consider this machine the greatest triumph of human understanding over matter… As for America, I can assure you that such an invention would not induce capitalists to risk the slightest. A new rat trap or a new way of making shoe nails would arouse more interest here than your admirable calculating machine.”

Martin Olsson Wiberg was married two times. With his first wife, Sofia Augusta Knutsson (1830-1859), he had one son, Knut Alexis (born Dec 1854 and died May 1918). After the early death of Sofia in 1859, in 1863 Wiberg married a second time Emma Wilhelmina Lindskog (1843-1905). They had eleven children—five daughters: Sigrid Maria Wilhelmina (1865–1915), Ellen Emma Martina (1867–1938), Alma Ingeborg (1869-1950), Ebba (1871-1871), and Nanny Emilia (1872-1941), and six sons: Axel Algot (1868-1920), Nils Albert (1870-1870), Gustav Lennart (1874-1932), Philibert (1875-1906), Torsten (1876-1934), and Ragnar (1877-1934).

The remarkable inventor Martin Wiberg died in his home in Hedvig Eleonora Parish of Stockholm on 29 Dec 1905, only several months after his wife Emma Wilhelmina. As evidence of the vitality and the will-power he possessed, can be mentioned, that when the doctors told him he had only a couple of hours in this world, he gave instructions on how a bed should be constructed so like, that it is prepared for a sick person to the greatest possible rest period.