Thomas de Colmar

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Thomas de Colmar (1785-1870)
Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar in 1846, a 60 years old respectable gentleman

The first calculating machine put in serial production was the Arithmomètre (arithmometer) of the French entrepreneur Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar (1785-1870).

Colmar conceived the idea of the arithmometer during his lengthy stay with the armies of Marchall Soult, where he needed to perform a lot of calculations. This became even more important in his eyes when, in 1819, he was appointed General Manager of the Phoenix insurance company and, later, when he founded the insurance companies Soleil (1829) and Aigle (1843).

Of course, others had tried before him to make calculating machines in quantities: let’s mention only Pascal, Leibniz, Morland, Hahn, Stanhope (especially Hahn tried to manufacture in amount his machines but without success). But these machines, often defective and very expensive, made it impossible to commercialize. Moreover, it was too early to produce in large quantities a calculator in the 17th or 18th century. Human society was not needed yet such devices and the technologies, needed for such mass production, have not been invented yet. In the middle of the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, technological trammels dropped out. More and more enterprises, scientific, military and government institutions became eager to accept a calculator. In the nick of time, then came Thomas de Colmar.

In fact, Thomas commenced the design of his calculating machine in 1818, but it was first made public in 1820 when he was granted a five-year patent (pat. No. 1420, 18 November 1820, see the drawing below). Obviously, the calculating mechanism is based on the stepped drum mechanism of Leibniz. It is clear however that the patent represents only a transient prototype, on which Thomas was still actively working. By 1821, when he was ready to submit an example to the scrutiny of the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale, the design had already moved on significantly.

General view from the 1820 patent of Colmar
General view from the 1820 patent of Thomas de Colmar, presenting the first version of the machine

In 1821 Thomas de Colmar submitted to the Sociėtė d’Encouragement… in Paris the first copy of the calculating machine he had constructed (which he called an arithmometer), manufactured by the Parisian horloger-mécanicien Jean-Pierre Devrine. From 1822, when the production started, until 1878, were manufactured about 1500 machines, as the last models cost 500 franks, a serious sum for this time. Interestingly, in the book Histoire Des Nombres: Et de La Numeration Mechanique (1855), the author, Jacomy-Régnier claimed that Thomas had spent 300000 francs on developing the arithmometer, setting that figure against Leibniz’s reputed costs of 100000 francs and Babbage’s notorious government subvention of £17000 (reckoned as equivalent to 425000 francs). Admittedly, at least until the end of the 1850s Thomas’s work on the arithmometer is more likely to fall within the category of vanity publishing than profit and mass production.

The series production started really only about 1851 and finished around 1914. As we know, the Thomas workshop completed five hundred machines from 1821 to 1865, three hundred machines from 1865 to 1870, four hundred machines from 1871 to 1875, and three hundred machines from 1876 to 1878. More than 5000 examples of the arithmometer were manufactured during these 90 years, 40% of the production was sold in France and the remainder was intended for export. In fact, up to the time when the calculating machine industry was introduced into Germany by Arthur Burkhardt (1878), Thomas’ workshop was the only company in this line and supplied the whole world with its products.

The oldest surviving arithmometer from 1822 (front view, upper, and internal mechanism, lower photo)
The oldest survived arithmometer from 1822 (front view, upper, and internal mechanism, lower photo) (© Smithsonian Institution, Washington)

The 1820 machine had overall measurements 8.2 cm x 29.5 cm x 13.4 cm, and featured a ribbon to pull (instead of a crank as in later models), a second set of result display for subtraction and division, and (most important)—a multiplication gear, set by the first slider from left, which allowed the “multiple add” by one “pull” and actually shows the number of the revolutions of the calculating mechanism. It has a capacity of three digits in the input mechanism and six digits in the result mechanism. It has only clearance of the single result digits.

In the second model of 1848 (see the photo below), the complex and unreliable movement mechanism with ribbon was replaced by a crank at the front side, which can be rotated in two directions so many times, according to the value of the particular digit in the multiplier/divisor. It still has the multiplication gear. The second set of result displays is gone, the switch from addition and multiplication to subtraction and division was done by a lever. Internally, the stepped drum was reduced from 18 to 9 teeth. The capacity was increased to five digits in the input mechanism and ten digits in the result mechanism. Every digital position is shown in one window already because switching between multiplication and division was done by means of the lever (placed to the left of the multiplication lever), which changed the direction of the carry from the calculating to the result mechanism.

The Thomas' arithmometer from 1848
The Thomas’ arithmometer, second version (example from 1848)

In the third version of the machine from 1858, the main improvement was the second counting mechanism without a tens-carry (revolution counting mechanism), which simplifies multiplication and division. The machine was also provided with one zero-setting device that acted on all the windows of the result mechanism and another for all the windows of the revolution-counting mechanism. Previously, all the numeral disks had to be set to zero individually by turning knobs placed below the individual windows. The zero-setting device is in the form of a rotating knob that is turned to the right until all the windows of the respective numeral mechanisms show zero. The zero-setting device of the result mechanism is mounted on the right side of the upper surface of the carriage, whereas the zero-setting mechanism of the revolution-counting register is arranged on the left.

In the fourth version of the machine from 1878, the setting slides were provided with small springs, which, when the slide has been set to a certain digit, causing the slide to slip into a notch opposite that digit so that an accidental movement of the setting knob during operation of the crank is avoided. The tens-carry mechanism was materially improved. Means were provided to prevent overthrow. The capacity of the model is 10 x 11 x 20.

Let’s examine the principle of work of the mechanism:
The machine presents two principal parts (see the drawing below), a fixed setting plate with a series of sliders for inputting numbers (marked with A), and a movable carriage where results appear (M). The number, set with the sliders, is mechanically transferred to the result dials on the carriage (C) by turning the handle (N). This transfer operation, basic to all the arithmometer’s workings, is accomplished using the stepped cylinders of Leibniz.

The arithmometer as shown in an 1865 instruction manual
The arithmometer as shown in an 1865 instruction manual

Each cylinder carries nine teeth whose length increases step-wise (see the drawing below) (marked with A). The cylinder’s teeth engage a pinion (B), whose position is controlled by the setting slider (C). The higher the number set by the slider, the larger the number of teeth on the cylinder engaging the pinion. When the handle is turned the cylinder rotates and as a result, the pinion’s square arbor (F) is turned through an arc proportional to the value set on the slider. It is this rotation that is communicated to the result dial (K) via a bevel wheel (G). One turn of the handle adds the value set on the sliders to the result dials and, since multiplication is simply repeated addition, turning the handle, say, 8 times multiplies the given number by 8. To multiply by 38 it is not necessary to turn the handle 38 times. Rather, after turning it 8 times, the carriage is moved one step to the right and the handle is then turned 3 times.

Internal mechanism of the machine from 1842
Internal mechanism of the machine from 1842

Using the reversing switch on the setting plate (upper figure, B), the machine can be set to perform subtraction and division. The lower figure shows the result of pushing the switch: M slides forward, disengaging the bevel wheel G from I (on the axis of the result dial K), and bringing H into contact with I. Now when a turn of the handle causes arbor F to turn, I—and thus the result dial rotates in the opposite direction, reducing rather than increasing the displayed value. A turn of the handle thus subtracts the number set on the sliders from a number entered on the result dials.

As multiplication is repeated addition, so division is repeated subtraction, with the quotient appearing in the smaller set of dials on the carriage (upper figure, D). These quotient dials are simply counters: each turn of the handle increments the dial currently in contact with the counting mechanism by one unit. The quotient dials are also useful in multiplication since they provide a visual check on the value of the multiplier. Finally, when a calculation is complete, the carriage dials can be reset to zero: each set of dials has an independent zeroing mechanism operated by twisting one of the two knurled knobs at either end of the carriage (upper figure O and P).

Thomas first ventured into the world of exhibitions when the arithmometer was revived in 1844. A machine was entered in the French national exhibition of industrial products where it was classed amongst precision instruments in a category of diverse measures, counters and calculating machines. If Thomas had hoped for substantial recognition and reward, he was to be disappointed. The arithmometer was granted an honorable mention in the jury report but was clearly considered inferior to the submission of the Austrian emigré doctor Didier Roth, who obtained a bronze medal for his adding and calculating machines and counters. The judgment of the 1844 jury was mirrored in the coverage given to Roth in a separate guide to the exhibition’s highlights, in which Roth’s adding machine was described and illustrated, while the arithmometer was ignored.

The next French national exhibition took place in 1849 and Thomas again tried his luck. On this occasion, he was awarded a silver medal and the jury report devoted three pages to his machine. However, despite this higher honor, he was again eclipsed, for a gold model went to the mechanics Maurel and Jayet for their Arithmaurel, a calculating machine with automatic capabilities, judged to exceed those of the arithmometer.

The Piano Arithmometer of Colmar, 1855
The Piano Arithmometer of Colmar, 1855

A further competitive opportunity was soon offered by the 1851 Great Exhibition. But again, Thomas was frustrated. The arithmometer was one of two calculating machines to receive a prize medal, but the jury decided that it was inferior to a Russian entry devised by Izrael Staffel, originally a watchmaker from Warsaw. The arithmometer was illustrated in the official catalog, but it was Staffel’s calculator, already successful at a Polish exhibition and rewarded in St Petersburg, which was featured in the Illustrated London News.

Disappointed again, Colmar decided to prepare well for the next challenge, the 1855 exhibition in Paris. He created a giant machine, especially for the exhibition (see the nearby photo). Some six feet long, equipped with 15 setting sliders and 30 result dials, and encased in fine cabinetwork the result was evidently meant to capture more than technical interest. And again arithmometer with no more than an honorable mention, this time the goals medal was awarded to Scheutz’s difference engine.

As a whole, in his long production history, the arithmometer of Thomas de Colmar received many medals, but very often has been neglected on the account of more sophisticated and advanced machines, which however will never reach the market and production achievements of his rival.

Biography of Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar

Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar (1785-1870).
Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar (1785-1870) was a man of high stature, of infinite refinement in his entirety, behaved as a true gentleman and was one of the most handsome people of his time

Charles-Xavier Thomas, also known as de Colmar, was born on 5 May 1785, at number 8 rue Rapp in the town of Colmar, the capital of the Alsace wine region. He was the son of Joseph-Antoine Thomas (1758-1831), a physician, and Françoise-Xavière Entzlen (Anselin) (1759-1817). Joseph-Antoine Thomas studied medicine in Freiburg and married on 12 November 1781, in Rastatt (Baden) to Françoise-Xavier, a native of Carlsruhe, Baden-Württemberg.

The Thomas family, originally from Burgundy, moved to Guebwiller in the Alsace region during the 30-year war, around 1634. Sir Thomas, born on 8 February 1758, in Guebwiller, after graduating from the University of Freiburg in the early 1780s, practiced medicine in Colmar and then at the Hospice in the town of Rouffach, where he died on 11 April 1831 (Françoise-Xavière also died in Rouffach on 1 May 1817). Joseph-Antoine was a member of Rouffach’s town council.

Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar (1785-1870)
Charles-Xavier Thomas de Colmar (1785-1870)

After finalizing his studies and after a quick passage through the administration of the French Regie, Charles-Xavier joined the French army during the 1809-1811 and 1813 campaigns in Portugal and Spain. He was Cashier General for supplies in Portugal and Spain in 1809, then General Manager of the supply store of the army’s headquarters in Seville in 1810. He was then General Manager of the supply store of all the armies located in Spain in 1813. When he arrived in Bayonne just after the defeat of Vitoria he was promoted to Inspector of Supply for the entire French army.

It was during his lengthy stay with the armies of Marchall Soult where he needed to perform a lot of calculations, that he conceived the idea of the calculating device—arithmometer. This became even more important in his eyes when, in 1819, he founded Le Phénix fire insurance company (he was named General Manager for 15 years, but resigned the next year, following a disagreement with his partners and shareholders) and, later, the companies Soleil (Sun), founded in 1829, and Aigle (Eagle), founded in 1843, that became the number one insurance group in France at the beginning of the Second Empire. Thomas became one of the founders of this industry in France (he introduced many innovations in this industry) and his business success in insurance, later on, will allow him to invest in such а non-profitable enterprise, as the production of calculating machines. Thus this remarkable man remained in history best known for designing, patenting, and manufacturing the first commercially successful mechanical calculator in the world.

Francesca (Frasquita) Garcia de Ampudia Alvarez (Mme Thomas de Colmar)
Francesca (Frasquita) Garcia de Ampudia Alvarez (Mme Thomas de Colmar) (23 Sep 1794 – 19 Oct 1874)

In early 1811 Charles-Xavier married in Seville to a young woman from one of the oldest and most renowned families of Andalusia— Francisca (Frasquita) Garcia de Ampudia Alvarez (23 September 1794, Marbella, Espagne – 19 Oct 1874, Paris), who became his faithful companion for life and gave him seven sons (two of them died in infancy), and three daughters. Their first child, Joseph Thomas Alvarez (1811-1873), was born in Seville in December 1811. Later they will have Charlotte Marie (1813-1840), Antoine Auguste (b. 1815), Louis François (b. 1816), René (b. 1817), Nicolas Louis (1818-1881), Charles (b. 1821), Frasquita Madeleine Joséphine (1821-1905), Henri (b. 1825), Emmanuel Eugene (1827-1840), Henriette Leontine (1831-1876).

In his long life Thomas de Colmar was decorated with many orders—in 1821, Chevalier of the Legion d’Honor (for his invention of the Arithmometer); 1852, Knight of the Ordre de la Couronne de Chêne; 1852, Commander of the Ordre de Saint Grégoire le Grand; 1853, Croix de Chevalier du Sauveur; 1854, Knight of the Ordre des Saints Maurice et Lazare; 1857, Officier de la Légion d’honneur and others.

Thomas de Colmar died of acute bladder disease on 12 March 1870, at the age of 84, in one of his properties on 156 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, and was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery. The Sun King (as he was dubbed) left a huge fortune of over 24 million francs, not to mention château de Maisons-Laffitte, château de Champfleury in Carrières-sous-Poissy, château and domaine de Mairé in Vienne, etc. By his death, the “Aigle – Soleil” group was the biggest insurance business in France and he owned 81% of it.