Biography of Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal invented the first digital calculator, the Pascaline.

Pascaline, an early calculator
Pascaline, an early calculator. David Monniaux/Creative Commons

French inventor, Blaise Pascal 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.

A genius from a young age, Blaise Pascal composed a treatise on the communication of sounds at the age of twelve, and at the age of sixteen, he composed a treatise on conic sections.

The Life of Blaise Pascal 

Blaise Pascal was born at Clermont on June 19, 1623, and died in Paris on Aug. 19, 1662. His father was a local judge and tax collector at Clermont, and himself of some scientific reputation. He moved to Paris in 1631, partly to prosecute his own scientific studies, 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 his not being overworked, and with the same object, it was directed that his education should be at first confined to the study of languages, and should not include any mathematics. This naturally excited the boy's curiosity, and one day, being then twelve years old, he asked in what geometry consisted. 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.

At the age of fourteen Blaise Pascal was admitted to the weekly meetings of Roberval, Mersenne, Mydorge, and other French geometricians; from which, ultimately, the French Academy sprung. At sixteen Blaise Pascal wrote an essay on conic sections; and in 1641, at the age of eighteen, he constructed the first arithmetical machine, an instrument which, eight years later, he further improved. 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.

In 1650, when 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''; and about the same time he persuaded the younger of his two sisters to enter the Port Royal society.

In 1653, Blaise Pascal had to administer his father's estate. He now took up his old life again, and made 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 created the calculus of probabilities. He was meditating marriage when an accident again turned the current of his thoughts to a religious life. He was driving a four-in-hand 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. Always somewhat of a mystic, he 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; and shortly moved to Port Royal, where he continued to live until his death in 1662. Constitutionally delicate, he had injured his health by his incessant study; from the age of seventeen or eighteen he suffered from insomnia and acute dyspepsia, and at the time of his death was physically worn out.

The Pascaline

The idea of using machines to solve mathematical problems can be traced at least as far 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.

In 1642, at the age of eighteen Blaise Pascal invented his numerical wheel calculator called the Pascaline to help his father 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 (one's column) moved ten notches - the second dial moved one notch to represent the ten's column reading of 10 - and when the ten dial moved ten notches the third dial (hundred's 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 the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. With a piece of string, he attached his pocket watch to his wrist.

Pascal (Pa) - 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. l00,OOO Pa= 1000mb 1 bar.

Pascal Language

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).