Ramón Verea

The window to the world can be covered by a newspaper.
Stanisław Jerzy Lec

D. Ramon Verea y Garcia, on the front page of El Eco de Galicia newspaper, Nr. 229, Buenos Aires, 28/02/1898
D. Ramon Verea y Garcia, on the front page of El Eco de Galicia newspaper, Nr. 229, Buenos Aires, 28/02/1898

In 1878 Ramón Silvestre Verea Aguiar y García (1833-1899), a Spaniard, and newspaper publisher in New York, patented a direct-multiplying calculating machine, which seems to be the second patented machine of this type in the world  (after the machine of Edmund Barbour), ten years before the first popular direct-multiplying machine of León Bollée.

Most early calculating machines carried out multiplication as a form of repeated addition. To multiply, say, by sixteen, one set the carriage at its rightmost position, turned the operating crank six times, shifted the carriage one position to the left, and turned the crank once. In direct-multiplying calculating machines, the operator had only to perform n operations when the multiplier was an n digit number.

Ramón Verea was a Spaniard, who in 1865 settled in New York, working as a journalist in a magazine, an agent for inventions and trading with Spanish gold and banknotes, which got him interested in calculation. The inventor himself listed in an article in the New York newspaper Las Novedades, issue 1 April 1881, his motives to create the calculating machine:
My object in undertaking an invention at first sight impossible it was not the hope of refunding even a part of several thousand dollars that I have spent; neither it was to become a celebrity like others, my ambition was driven by:
1) A little egoism;
2) Much patriotism, the desire to prove that in inventive genius a Spaniard can leave behind the eminences of the most cultured nations;
3) The innate eagerness to contribute something to the advancement of science; and lastly
4) Entertainment according to my tastes and inclinations.

On 5 July 1878, Verea applied, and on 10 September 1878, he received a U.S. patent №207918 for his machine. It seems, that he manufactured also two prototypes, one of them sent together with the patent application to the US Patent Office, and the second, which the same year (1878) was exposed and won a gold medal of the Exposición Mundial de Inventos de Cuba in Matanzas, Cuba.

The advanced calculating machine of Verea didn’t remain unnoticed. Soon many newspapers like New York HeraldScientific AmericanLe CourrierLas Novedades, published articles about the machine. In the Scientific American, Vol. 39, Nr. 16 of October 1878, the message was short: Mr. Ramon Verea, of New York City, has patented an improved Calculating Machine. This ingenious machine is capable of rapidly performing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The details of its construction cannot be properly described without engravings.

In the New York Herald article (later reprinted in other newspapers, like Morning Journal and Courier, New Haven, Conn., 13 April 1881) the machine of Verea was described in more detail (see below):

Multiplication by Machinery.
A Lot of Cogs and Wheels that Perform Arithmetical Calculations with Wondrous Rapidity and Accuracy.
Nothing seems more paradoxical than to perform the arithmetical operations, which appear to belong exclusively to the mind, by a combination of metallic pieces. Pope Sylvester II, to whom the world is indebted for the system of Arabic figures, tried to make a calculating machine. Pascal and Leibnits spent years in vain attempts to solve the problem of mechanical mathematical calculation, and others worked at the same task until Thomas de Colmar, the French mathematician, discovered a method in 1822. Elaborations of the principles contained in his machine have been numerous but all results have only succeeded in perfecting a way to add and subtract. This made multiplication possible by adding one factor to itself as many times as there were units in the other factor, but the process was long and tedious.
Mr. Ramon Verea, a Spanish resident of New York, has been devoting his leisure hours for several years in developing a machine that will multiply and divide, and has finally succeeded. It will produce a product having fifteen figures and the factors may be of nine or less than nine and six or less than six figures. A turn of a small crank once for each figure in the multiplier displays the product on a disc. The work is almost instantaneous and the accuracy of it unimpeachable. The machine consists of ten circular plates placed vertically, and on the edge of each are figures from 1 to 9 inclusive and zero. On the sides of these plates are points which form in substance a multiplication table. Suppose 9 is to be multiplied by 6. The first plate is turned so that nine shows on top; the other factor is then shown on a wheel belonging to a similar set as those on, which nine is shown. When the crank is turned the multiplicand plate turns six-ninths of a revolution and a point on the fourth concentric circle of points on the side of the plate is presented on one side and a point on the fifth concentric circle on the other. These two points meet each a small tongue which operates upon the product box, where the result is directly shown. The mechanism by which the product is recorded is too complicated to admit of a description except at great length. There are a series of wheels worked upon, each of them graduated as to size and shape with the concentric circles on the plates. It might be said that in the multiplication the additions necessary are made simultaneously with the multiplication. For example, multiplying 56 by 7 the process is 7 times 6 are 42, 7 times 5 are 35 and 4 are 39-product, 392. With the machine the work is instantaneous. When the wheel is turned the record is first made of 42 and then of 35, that is the 5 is at once added to the figure in the place of the tens of the other number, and the entire product “bobs up serenely” as the crank completes the revolution. If the multiplier were a double number, say 56 by 27, another turn of the crank would make the multiplication and addition complete. To prove the operation, pressing a button throws into gear a new set of wheels, and a turn of the crank reduces all the numbers in the product box to zero. Should zero not at once appear it would prove the original operation was wrong.

The prototype of the Verea's machine, sent to to the Patent Office
The patent example of Verea’s machine

Mr. Verea explains that he did not make the machine either to sell its patent or to put it into use, but simply to show that it was possible and that a Spaniard can invent as well as an American. A number of the tests that were made in the presence of a Herald reporter and other visitors were conducted with facility and accuracy. The operation of multiplying 9,000,000 by 9,000 was correctly performed by the machine while the reporter and an accountant were trying to write out the product which they had already arrived at by a mental process.

*** End of article ***

Sadly, soon the sands closed over the machine of Verea. He never tried to market it. He just walked away and never invented anything else. As he said: “I just moved the desire to contribute something to the advancement of science and a little self-esteem. I am a journalist and not a scientist and also what I wanted to show… is already proven.”

It seems Verea produced totally three examples of his calculating machine. The prototype of Verea’s machine, which was sent by the inventor to the US Patent Office (see the nearby image), together with the application in July 1878, was kept in the tanks of the headquarters of IBM in White Plains (New York) to be part of the collection begun in 1930 by the founder of IBM—Thomas Watson.

Verea’s calculator was made of iron, brass, and steel, about 25 kilograms, 35 cm long, 23 cm wide, and 20 cm high. It was able to add, multiply and divide numbers of nine figures, allowing up to six numbers in the multiplier and fifteen in the product. The multiplication was solved through the direct method, based on a mechanism patented by Edmund D. Barbour in 1872. Verea saw how to do the whole multiplication in one stroke of a lever.

One of the patent drawings of the Verea's machine
One of the patent drawings of Verea’s machine

The basis of his machine was a ten-sided metal prism or cylinder (at the front side of the device you can see the two ten-sided brass cylinders, that are mounted vertically). Each of the sides of each cylinder has two columns of holes, with ten holes in a column. The holes come in ten sizes, with the largest and deepest representing zero, and the smallest and shallowest—nine. The holes represent multiples of a given digit.

Above the cylinders are two knobs that move in slots in the flat top of the machine. Pulling forward a knob rotates the cylinder below, so that the side facing the back of the machine has holes representing multiples of the digit desired. Behind this mechanism is a row of tapered pins. Pulling a lever at the back of the machine raises or lowers these pins in order to set the multiplier. Turning a crank on the right side moves the pins up to the faces of the cylinders and, where there are holes in the cylinder, allows the pins to enter to a certain depth.

Once the surface of a cylinder touched a pin, it pushed the pin, and a rack behind the pin, backward. Pins entering shallow holes reach the cylinder quickly and have a correspondingly greater effect on the rack. Pinions linked to the racks rotate correspondingly, rotating the result wheels at the back of the machine, with carrying occurring as required. Further turning of the crank restores the cylinder, racks, and pins to their original position.

Ramon Verea's calculating machine (Smithsonian Institution)
Ramon Verea’s calculating machine (© Smithsonian Institution)

It seems the prototypes of the machine, although looking primitive, worked perfectly for demonstration purposes. During one of the demonstrations (different from the previously mentioned demo in the presence of a New York Herald reporter), the device could multiply 698543721 x 807689 in twenty seconds, an amazing speed for the time.

Biography of Ramon Verea

The house in Esmoris, where Ramon Verea was born
The house in Esmoris, Galicia, Spain, where Ramon Verea was born

The Galician Ramón Silvestre Verea Aguiar y García was born on 11 December 1833, in the farm of his family in the small rural community of Esmorís, parish San Miguel de Curantes, Pontevedra, to Juan Verea Filloy (a son of Pedro Verea and María Filloy from Esmorís) and Florentina García de Porto (a daughter of Jose Garcia and Feliciana de Porto, from Freán, parish of Santa Cristina de Vinseiro, Pontevedra). The humble house, where Ramón was born, is still preserved (slightly renewed) in Esmoris (see the nearby image).

As a boy, Ramón attended the primary school in Curantes, and was tutored by his uncle, the priest Francisco de Porto, an educated man, and owner of a big library. In 1847, at age of fourteen, Ramón left his home to enter the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Santiago de Compostela, planning to pursue “the literary career”. However, in 1849, following the wish of his uncle for a priestly career, he entered the Seminario Conciliar in Santiago de Compostela (see the lower image).

Verea stayed in the seminary for five years (until 1854) and appears immediately as a great student, achieving remarkable results in philosophy, metaphysics, Hebrew, etc. During his summer holidays, he devoted himself to his passion for reading, and organized an impromptu workshop on the porch of his house, in order to master different gadgets. However, Verea’s curious mind always tried to investigate the reason behind everything, thus his numerous questions could not get the appropriate answers from his religious teachers. At some moment his faith hesitated, and he realized that he is not going to devote his life to religion.

Seminario Conciliar in Santiago de Compostela, the Alma Mater of Ramon Verea
Seminario Conciliar in Santiago de Compostela, the Alma Mater of Ramon Verea

In 1855 Verea shipped to Cuba, to begin his real-life adventure. There he started as a schoolmaster and teacher in Sagua la Grande, a small city near Colón, and then in Colón, where he wrote two novels and writes as a journalist for newspapers like El Progreso. He also studied English, planning his relocation to the USA.

There was a description of Verea from 1862 from his friend, the journalist and writer José Manuel Pérez Moris: “…a young 28 years old, tall, tanned, slim waist and wide chest, facing clear, large eyes, alive and intelligent, happy character, determined, restless and frank… “.

Already in his student years, Verea was interested in making simple devices that could have useful applications. In 1863, during his stay in Colón, Cuba, he devised a machine for folding newspapers. Later, when he already lived in the US, as he hadn’t sufficient financial resources to build and patent the apparatus, he sold his invention to a speculator in New York.

In 1865, looking for better luck, Verea moved for a short time to Puerto Rico, then to New York, USA. There he started as a journalist in a biweekly Spanish-language newspaper, and a teacher and translator in Spanish. At the same time, Verea kept his interest in inventions and in machinery, and in 1867 he returned to the city of Havana, where he tried to establish himself as a representative to introduce machinery and appliances of the modern invention in Cuba. The project, despite not reaching the benefits Verea expected, helped him to save some money and to obtain a good experience.

After spending almost eight years in Havana, Verea returned to New York with a small capital and in 1875 established an Industrial Agency for the Purchase of Machinery and Effects of Modern Invention. It seems he remained keen on journalism all the time and in 1877 he became a director of the newspaper El Cronista.

Hearing the complaints of his Spanish friends and insinuations of his American friends, that the Spanish have fallen behind in the historical process of scientific and technical progress, that the Spanish had no capacity to adapt, and that his time had passed, he decided to prove the opposite, creating a very interesting direct-multiplying calculating machine.

in 1879 Verea returned for some time to his home country. In his village in Curantes he found everything remains the same, no progress since his childhood and his parents are already dead. He visited Santiago and Coruña and returned to the USA in 1881.

Back in the city of New York, in 1882 he sets up a modern printing press named “The polyglottis”. In January 1884, he founded a monthly illustrated magazine, El Progreso, which was printed on his press.

In February 1895, displeased at his life in New York and the US policy of intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, Verea moved to Guatemala. There he was warmly welcomed by President Reina Barros, and wrote several books, “La defensa de España”, “La cuestión de Cuba”, etc. However, Verea was soon disappointed by the policy of the president and was again searching for a better place.

In 1897, Ramon Verea, single and lonely, moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the hope to meet several Galician intellectuals and some relatives who lived there. In that city, he founded the biweekly journal El Progreso (Jan. 1898), and continued to publish and act as a journalist.

Ramón Verea spent all his life as an idealist and liberal. He preached for equality between men and women, the abolition of slavery, and freedom of expression. He wanted to defend reason against fanaticism; to defend the Chinese, the blacks, the Indians and all the oppressed who could give me nothing, against the oppressors who are strong and powerful and from whom gold and favour can be obtained.

This beautiful mind—Ramón Silvestre Verea Aguiar y García, died leaving no issue, poor and lonely, from an infection of the lungs in the capital of Argentina on 6 February 1899, and was buried in an anonymous grave in Cementerio del Oeste, Buenos Aires.