Thomas Hill

Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.
Friedrich Neitzsche

Thomas Hill (1818-1891)
Thomas Hill (1818-1891)

The improved arithmometer of the Reverend Thomas Hill (1818-1891), a Unitarian clergyman in Waltham, Massachusetts (later he became a famous scientist, educator, President of Harvard University and one of the most profound yet brilliant mathematicians in the USA), was the first key-driven calculating machine, made in the United States, which was preserved to our time (see US patent №18692 of Hill from 24 November 1857).

The calculator of Hill was not the first machine of this type neither in the world, nor in USA. His compatriot Parmelee patented a key-driven adding machine seven years before, in 1850, but it remained only on paper. The same is true for the machine of Orlando Lane Castle, which (interestingly) was patented on the same day—24 November 1857. We don’t know if the two inventors knew each other, but anyway the construction of their machines is quite different.

Several key-driven calculating machines had been already built in Europe long time before (e.g. machines of James White, Luigi Torchi, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, Victor Schilt, and Ernest-Narcisse Lobbé). We can hardly suppose that Hill knew something about the machines of European inventors, but he probably knew the machine of Parmelee, and decided to make his own and better device (it was not a hard task, because the machine of Parmelee was rather primitive).

In 1857 Hill applied for patent for “a new and useful Mechanical Calculator for the Purpose of Performing Various Mathematical Calculations” and sent a wooden model to the US patent office. It is known, that up to 1880, the Patent Office required inventors to submit a model with their patent application. Inventors placed great importance on their models and viewed a well-executed model as the key element in obtaining a patent. Sadly, in 1877 there was a disastrous fire in the US Patent Office building and many models were destroyed. Fortunately, the model of Hill survived and was preserved to our time.

The calculating machine of Thomas Hill (the patent drawing)
The calculating machine of Thomas Hill (patent drawing)

The device has overall measurements 12.5 cm x 7.5 cm x 30.8 cm, and was made of wood, metal, and paper.

The patent shows two numeral wheels, each having seven sets each of large and small figures running from 1 to 9 and the cipher marked on their periphery. The large sets of figures are arranged for addition or positive calculation, and the small figures are arranged the reverse for subtraction or negative calculation. The wheels are provided with means for the carry of the tens, very similar to that found in the Pascal machine. Each of the two wheels shown are provided with ratchet teeth which correspond in number with the number of figures on the wheel.

Spring-pressed, hook-shaped ratchet pawls (marked b in the figure), are arranged to be in constant engagement with the numeral wheels. These pawls are each pivotally mounted in the end of the levers (marked E), which are pivoted at the front end of the casing.

The levers E, are held in normal or upward position by springs f, at the front of the machine. Above each of these levers E, are a series of keys which protrude through the casing with their lower ends resting on the levers. There are but six keys shown in the drawing, but the specification claims that a complete set of nine keys may be supplied for each lever.

The arrangement and spacing of the keys are such that the greater the value of the key the nearer it is to the fulcrum or pivot of the lever E. The length of the key stem under the head or button of each key is gauged to allow depression of the key, the lever E and pawl b, far enough to cause the numeral wheel to rotate as many numeral places as the value marking on the key.

A back-stop pawl for the numeral wheels, (marked p), is mounted on a cross-rod at the top of the machine. But one of these pawls are shown, the shaft and the pawl for the higher wheel being broken away to show the device for transferring the tens to the higher wheel.

A replica of the calculating machine of Thomas Hill (Courtesy Nico Baaijens, www.calculi.nl)
A replica of the calculating machine of Thomas Hill (Courtesy Nico Baaijens, www.calculi.nl)

The transfer device for the carry of the tens is a lever arrangement constructed from a tube F, mounted on the cross-rod m, with arms G and H. Pivoted to the arm G, is a ratchet pawl i, and attached to the pawl is a spring that serves to hold the pawl in engagement with the ratchet of the higher-order numeral wheel, and at the same time, through its attachment with the pawl, holds the lever arms G and H retracted as shown in the drawing.

As the lower-order numeral wheel passes any one of its points from 9 to 0, one of the teeth or cam lugs n, on the wheel will move the arm H, of the transfer lever forward, causing the pawl i, to move the higher-order wheel one step to register the accumulation of the tens.

The functions of the Hill mechanism would, perhaps, be practical if it were not for the physical law that “bodies set in motion tend to remain in motion”. Just as his forerunner Parmelee, Hill made no provision for overcoming the lightning-speed momentum that could be given the numeral wheels in his machine through manipulation of the keys, either from direct key-action or indirectly through the carry of the tens. Imagine the sudden whirl his numeral wheel would receive on a quick depression of a key and then consider that he provided no means for stopping these wheels; it is obvious that a correct result could not be obtained by the use of such mechanism.

Considerable unearned publicity has been given the Hill invention on account of the patent office model having been placed on exhibit in the National Museum at Washington (at the present time the model is kept in the collection of Smithsonian Institution in Washington).

The patent model of the arithmometer of Thomas Hill (© National Museum of American History)
The patent model of the arithmometer of Thomas Hill (© National Museum of American History)

Other key-driven machines were presented in the following years, in particular by the Americans Leonard Nutz (in 1858) and Joseph Alexander (in 1864), Austrian Friedrich Arzberger (1866), Gilbert Chapin from New York (1870) and David Carroll from Pennsylvania (1876) among others. Improvements in these machines led to the first practical key-driven machine—the famous Comptometer by Dorr E. Felt, presented in 1885.


Thomas Hill

Biography of Thomas Hill

Thomas Hill (1818-1891)
Thomas Hill (1818-1891)

Thomas Hill (Jr.) was born to Thomas Hill (1771-1828) and his second wife, Henrietta (Barker) Hill (1774-1824) on 7 June 1818, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a centrally located town between New York and Philadelphia along an early thoroughfare known as the King’s Highway and situated along the Raritan River, an important hub for Colonial travelers and traders.

Thomas Hill the father (see the lower image) was in his youth a farmer near Tamworth in Warwickshire, England . He was a Unitarian, and in 1791, during the prevailing political, religious, and social upheaval in England, emigrated to the United States is search of religious liberty. In his new country, he began as a farmer, then started a business as a tanner in New Brunswick, served for many years as a judge of the local court of common pleas, and married to his second wife, Henrietta Barker, whose father likewise had been driven from England during the religious persecutions following the Birmingham riot.

A lover of nature, Hill the father taught his children (Thomas had three brothers and five sisters, and he was the youngest) the scientific names of plants and encouraged an interest in the natural sciences. Unfortunately, Thomas lost his parents yearly, as Henrietta Hill died on 28 June 1824 and Thomas Hill (Sr.) died on 2 April 1828, thus Thomas became an orphan by the time he was only nine years old.

Thomas Hill Sr. (1771-1828) and his second wife, Henrietta (Barker) Hill (1774-1824)
Thomas Hill Sr. (1771-1828) and his second wife, Henrietta (Barker) Hill (1774-1824)

Thomas had little formal schooling in his early years, but his mother and sisters taught him to read and cipher. A keen observer with a retentive memory, he was a constant and wide reader, and developed an early interest in botany, science, philosophy and mathematics. By the time he was twelve years old, Thomas had read the works of Benjamin Franklin and Erasmus Darwin. After three years of formal schooling, tо make a little money, Hill served as an apprentice in the newspaper Fredonian from 1830 to 1833. Then until October 1834 he studied under his eldest brother at Lower Dublin Academy in Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, then at Leicester Academy in Massachusetts, leaving in 1837. Although he was interested in civil engineering, but since no place offered itself, Hill became an apprentice to an apothecary in his home place, serving in this capacity until 1838.

By May 1838 Hill managed to convince his brothers, who supported him, for his bent for the ministry, and started to prepare for Harvard College, where he entered at the end of 1839 and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1843. In Harvard, Hill distinguished himself in mathematics and invented an instrument for calculating eclipses and occultations, for which he was awarded the Scott Medal from the Franklin Institute. He also published a little book of poems entitled Christmas and Poems on Slavery, dedicated to Eliza Lee Follen, who was active in the anti-slavery movement. In 1845, Hill received his Doctor of Divinity from the Harvard Divinity School and entered the ministry for 14 years.

The Harvard Divinity School (source: www.hds.harvard.edu)
The Harvard Divinity School (source: www.hds.harvard.edu)

Hill served at the First Church of Waltham, Massachusetts from 1845 to 1859. It was during this time that Hill established his reputation, not only as a man of God, but also as a scientist, educator and writer. In the next few years, Hill published First Lessons in Geometry (1855), two mathematical textbooks, Geometry and Faith (1849), a book describing the essence of Hill’s religious doctrine, and several papers on mathematics and astronomy for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1857, he wrote an article about astronomy for the new Appleton’s Encyclopedia. A popular speaker, Hill gave the Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard University in 1858 and presented a series of Lowell Institute lectures on the Mutual Relation of the Sciences in 1859.

Thomas Hill with his son Henry and his grandson Edward in 1874
Thomas Hill with his son Henry and his grandson Edward in 1874

Soon after his graduation in the summer of 1845, on 27 November same year, Thomas Hill married in Waltham, Massachusetts, to Anne Foster Bellows (1817-1864), of Walpole, New Hampshire. The couple had six children—Mary Bellows (1846-1911), Henry Barker (1849-1903), Katherine (1851-1926), Elizabeth Joy (1854), Anne Bellows (1857), and Thomas Roby (1864-1923) (the nearby image pictures Thomas Hill with his son Henry and his grandson Edward Burlingame. Henry Barker Hill became a known American chemist and director of the Chemistry Laboratory at Harvard University. Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960) became a good American composer.)

In 1857 Hill obtained a patent for a key driven calculating machine, second in the USA. During his final years in Waltham, Hill served on the Waltham School Committee and was constantly encouraging and promoting new ideas and methods of instruction, including the introduction of phonetic spelling in the public schools.

In 1859, Hill accepted, much against his wishes, the presidency of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. His appointment was ill-timed, however, as the American Civil War forced the college to close in 1862. That same year Cornelius Conway Felton, the President of Harvard University, died suddenly, and Hill was asked to succeed him.

Returning to Harvard University, Hill had high hopes for the future and brought about a number of changes. Under his administration, the undergraduate curriculum adopted an elective system, permitting student choice in selecting courses. The standards for admission were raised, an Academic Council made up of the faculties of the college and professional schools was established, scholarships for the support of graduate students were endowed, a program of University Lecturers was introduced, and new chairs for professorships in geology and mining were founded.

Thomas HillDespite these apparent successes, Hill’s years at Harvard were not happy. He had difficulty in his dealings with faculty and in governing the University. In addition, his first wife, Ann, died in 1864 while he was in office. Two years later, on 23 July 1866, Hill married to Lucy Elizabeth Shepard (28 Sep 1837–9 Feb 1869) of Dorchester, his former student from Antioch College, and they had one son, Otis Shepard Hill (28 Dec 1868–3 Mar 1946), but unfortunately Lucy Elizabeth suffered from an incurable illness and died in the beginning of 1869. Hill’s experience with his own physical problems at this time also contributed to his unhappiness (he claimed to have injured his testicle while gardening, an incident that made him wary of laboratory instruction at Harvard, warning students not to exert themselves too much in their studies.) Tired and overwhelmed both personally and professionally, Hill resigned his office on 30 Sep 1868, weighed down by “personal bereavements”.

After the death of his wife Lucy in 1869, Hill spent a year resting and traveling. In 1871 he was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature from Waltham and served for one year. In 1872, Hill sailed with his friend Louis Agassiz on an expedition to South America. Returning to the ministry in 1873, Hill accepted a position at the First Church in Portland, Maine. For the next eighteen years, Hill was happy spending his time preaching, writing, lecturing, and pursuing scientific and educational experiments.

In the spring of 1891, Thomas Hill became ill, suffered for several months, and died on 21 November in Waltham, Massachusetts, and was buried at the local Mount Feake Cemetery. His house (see the lower photo), is still reserved and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Rev. Thomas Hill House at 132 Church Street in Waltham, Massachusetts. The ​2 1⁄2-story wood-frame house was built in 1845 and Hill was resident at the house while he served as minister of Waltham's First Parish, and for two other periods before his death in 1891.
The Rev. Thomas Hill House at 132 Church Street in Waltham, Massachusetts. The ​2 1⁄2-story wood-frame house was built in 1845 and Hill was resident at the house while he served as minister of Waltham’s First Parish, and for two other periods before his death in 1891.