Biography of Blaise Pascal, 17th Century Inventor of the Calculator

Blaise Pascal Calculating Machine
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French inventor Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–Aug. 19, 1662) was one of the most reputed mathematicians and physicists of his time. He is credited with inventing an early calculator, amazingly advanced for its time, called the Pascaline.

Fast Facts: Blaise Pascal

  • Known For: Mathematician and inventor of an early calculator
  • Born: June 19, 1623 in Clermont, France
  • Parents: Étienne Pascal and his wife Antoinette Begon
  • Died: August 19, 1662 in Port-Royal abbey, Paris
  • Education: Home-schooled, admitted to meetings of the French Academy, studies at Port-Royal
  • Published Works: Essay on Conic Sections (1640), Pensées (1658), Lettres Provinciales (1657)
  • Inventions: Mystic Hexagon, Pascaline calculator
  • Spouse(s): None
  • Children: None

Early Life

Blaise Pascal was born at Clermont on June 19, 1623, the second of three children of Étienne and Antoinette Bégon Pascal (1596–1626). Étienne Pascal (1588–1651) was a local magistrate and tax collector at Clermont, and himself of some scientific reputation, a member of the aristocratic and professional class in France known as noblesse de robe. Blaise's sister Gilberte (b. 1620) was his first biographer; his younger sister Jacqueline (b. 1625) earned acclaim as a poet and dramatist before becoming a nun.

Antoinette died when Blaise was 5. Étienne moved the family to Paris in 1631, partly to prosecute his own scientific studies and partly to carry on the education of his only son, who had already displayed exceptional ability. Blaise Pascal was kept at home in order to ensure he was not being overworked, and his father directed that his education should be at first confined to the study of languages. He requested that mathematics not be introduced until his son was 15.

This naturally excited the boy's curiosity, and one day, being then 12 years old, he asked what geometry was. His tutor replied that it was the science of constructing exact figures and of determining the proportions between their different parts. Blaise Pascal, stimulated no doubt by the injunction against reading it, gave up his play-time to this new study, and in a few weeks had discovered for himself many properties of figures, and in particular the proposition that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. In response, his father brought him a copy of Euclid. A genius from a young age, Blaise Pascal composed a treatise on the communication of sounds at the age of 12, and at the age of 16 he composed a treatise on conic sections.

A Life of Science

At the age of 14, Blaise Pascal was admitted to the weekly meetings of Roberval, Mersenne, Mydorge, and other French geometricians, from which, ultimately, the French Academy sprung.

In 1641, at the age of 18, Pascal built his first arithmetical machine, an instrument which, eight years later, he further improved and called the Pascaline. His correspondence with Fermat about this time shows that he was then turning his attention to analytical geometry and physics. He repeated Torricelli's experiments, by which the pressure of the atmosphere could be estimated as a weight, and he confirmed his theory of the cause of barometrical variations by obtaining at the same instant readings at different altitudes on the hill of Puy-de-Dôme.

The Pascaline

The idea of using machines to solve mathematical problems can be traced at least as far back as the early 17th century. Mathematicians who designed and implemented calculators that were capable of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division included Wilhelm Schickhard, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Leibniz.

Pascal invented his numerical wheel calculator called the Pascaline to help his father, by then a French tax collector, count taxes. The Pascaline had eight movable dials that added up to eight figured long sums and used base ten. When the first dial (ones column) moved 10 notches, the second dial moved one notch to represent the tens column reading of 10. When the second dial moved 10 notches, the third dial (hundreds column) moved one notch to represent one hundred, and so on.

Blaise Pascal's Other Inventions

Roulette Machine

Blaise Pascal introduced a very primitive version of the roulette machine in the 17th century. The roulette was a by-product of Blaise Pascal's attempts to invent a perpetual motion machine.

Wrist Watch

The first reported person to actually wear a watch on the wrist was Blaise Pascal. Using a piece of string, he attached his pocket watch to his wrist.

Religious Studies

In 1650 while he was in the midst of this research, Blaise Pascal suddenly abandoned his favorite pursuits to study religion, or, as he says in his Pensées, "contemplate the greatness and the misery of man." At about the same time, he persuaded the younger of his two sisters to enter the Benedictine abbey of Port-Royal.

In 1653, Blaise Pascal had to administer his father's estate. He took up his old life again and conducted several experiments on the pressure exerted by gases and liquids. It was also about this period that he invented the arithmetical triangle, and together with Fermat he created the calculus of probabilities. He was meditating marriage when an accident again turned his thoughts to religious life. He was driving a four-in-hand carriage on November 23, 1654, when the horses ran away. The two leaders dashed over the parapet of the bridge at Neuilly, and Blaise Pascal was saved only by the traces breaking.

Death

Always somewhat of a mystic, Pascal considered this a special summons to abandon the world. He wrote an account of the accident on a small piece of parchment, which for the rest of his life he wore next to his heart to perpetually remind him of his covenant. He moved to Port-Royal shortly after, where he continued to live until his death in Paris on August 19, 1662.

Constitutionally delicate, Pascal had injured his health by his incessant study; from the age of 17 or 18 he suffered from insomnia and acute dyspepsia, and at the time of his death he was physically worn out. He neither married nor had children, and at the end of his life he became an ascetic. Modern scholars have attributed his illness to a variety of possible ailments, including gastrointestinal tuberculosis, nephritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and/or irritable bowel syndrome.

Legacy

Blaise Pascal's contribution to computing was recognized by computer scientist Nicklaus Wirth, who in 1972 named his new computer language Pascal (and insisted that it be spelled Pascal, not PASCAL). The Pascal (Pa) is a unit of atmospheric pressure named in honor of Blaise Pascal, whose experiments greatly increased knowledge of the atmosphere. A pascal is the force of one newton acting on a surface area of one square meter. It is the unit of pressure designated by the International System.100,000 Pa= 1000 mb or 1 bar.

Sources

  • O'Connell, Marvin Richard. "Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart." Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 
  • O'Connor, J. J. and E. F. Robertson. "Blaise Pascal." School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland, 1996. Web
  • Pascal, Blaise. "Pensées." Trans. W.F. Trotter. 1958. Intro. T.S. Eliot. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003. Print.
  • Simpson, David. "Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013. Web. 
  • Wood, William. "Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.