Polish Contributions to Computing
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Abraham Izrael Stern was born in 1769, in Hrubieszów, Poland, and died on February 3, 1842, in Warsaw. He was an apprentice at a clockmaker’s shop in Hrubieszów, when a Polish nobleman and scientist, Stanislaw Staszic, who bought the estate in 1800, noticed his extraordinary talent and helped him to move to Warsaw. In Warsaw, Stern worked on developing multiple inventions, among them a series of calculating machines. For his inventions, he was admitted to the Royal Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science (predecessor of the Polish Academy of Sciences), first as a corresponding member (February 9, 1817), then as a qualifying member (February 4, 1821), and finally as a full member (January 3, 1830). He presented his inventions multiple times at the Society’s meetings. He was also active in Hebrew writings and at the end of his life became the Rector of the School for the Rabbis (1826-35). He was the father-in-law of another inventor, Chaim Zelig Slonimski.

Major Contribution: Invention of a calculating machine for four operations and extracting roots (1817) [1].

Basic Question
How was the machine built and how it operated? A lengthy description of Stern’s machine has been given by himself [1], and is linked to this website. However, it does not include any picture of the device. The only picture which was found to have been published (except of a fragment of the machine visible on the painting of Stern, shown on this website) is included in [2]. It is a copy, which has been exhibited in the Museum of Industry in Kraków, between the wars, however, it has not been preserved to our times. Stern presented multiple versions of his invention several times to the Royal Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science, first the machine for four arithmetic operations only (January 7, 1813), then a different machine for extracting square roots (January 13, 1817), and finally the combined machine for four operations and square roots (on April 30, 1818). In addition to that, he invented a number of other mechanical machines [2-5]: a thresher, a sawmill, and a harvester, which he also presented to the Society (November 23, 1818) and described in a paper [6].

Stern’s inventions were known around the world, at the time of their development. In 1816, Stern demonstrated his machine to the Tzar Alexander I, during his visit in Warsaw. In the Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition, 1867, he is mentioned in Chapter XVIII “Metrology and Mechanical Calculation”: “The list of those who from time to time attempted the construction of calculating machines, properly so called, must be added the names of [a list of names follows] Abraham Stern, distinguished mathematician of Warsaw (1814), and probably many others.”

The most significant historical finding is the retrieval of the original Abraham Stern’s description of his machine presented at the meeting of the Royal Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science [1]. This treatise has been translated into English and placed on this website under the Resources button. Another important finding is the lengthy description of Stern’s life and work, written in Hebrew by Jacob Shatzky [7], however, it still remains to be translated into English. With the exception of this article, to the best of our knowledge, our website is the first extensive presentation of Stern’s work in a language other the Polish, although there exists a brief paper in German [8].

References [hide]

[1] A. Stern, Rozprawa o machinie arytmetycznej (in Polish: Treatise on an Arithmetic Machine), Rocznik Towarzystwa Królewskiego Warszawskiego Przyjaciól Nauk (Annals of the Royal Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science), Vol. 12, pp. 106-127, 1818
[2] J. Sawicka, K. Sawicki, Abraham Stern (1769-1842) â€" racjonalizator i wynalazca (in Polish: Abraham Stern â€" an Inventor), Przeglad Geodezyjny, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 27-30, 1956
[3] J. Stoklosa, Abraham Stern â€" pierwszy polski konstructor maszyn liczacych (in Polish: Abraham Stern â€" the first Polish designer of calculating machines), Informatyka, Vol. 21, No. 2-3, pp. 31-32, 1986
[4] H. Winnicka, Zapomniany wynalazca (in Polish â€" A Forgotten Inventor), PZWS, Warszawa, 1962
[5] K. Wl. W., Abraham Stern (in Polish), Tygodnik Ilustrowany, Vol. 9, No. 248, June 25, 1864.
[6] A. Stern, Rozprawa o trzech nowych maszynach (in Polish â€" Treatise on Three New Machines), Rocznik Towarzystwa Królewskiego Warszawskiego Przyjaciól Nauk (Annals of the Royal Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science), Vol. 13, pp. 42-55, 1820
[7] J. Shatzky, Avraham Yakov Stern, The Joshua Starr Memorial Volume, Jewish Social Studies Publications No. 5, Conference on Jewish Relations, 1953, pp. 203-218 (in Hebrew)
[8] M. Detlefsen, Polnische Rechenmaschinenerfinder des 19. Jahrhunderts, Wissenschaft und Fortschritt, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 86-90, 1976