Abraham Stern (1769–1842) – Does anyone have a calculator?
What a strange paradox that a computing machine, a device that was inconceivable at the beginning of the 19th century, was not constructed by a mathematician, but by a phenomenal self-taught mechanic. This brilliant mechanic was a Polish Jew named Abraham Stern. He began studying mechanics as a watchmaker’s apprentice in Hrubieszow. At that time, watchmaking was the height of precision mechanics.
Abraham Stern’s talent was discovered by our enlightened promoter of science, Stanisław Staszic. In 1800, while visiting Hrubieszow, Staszic heard from locals about a young Jew who was placed with a local watchmaker as an apprentice. He found the boy and took him under his care, motivating him to develop his interest in science.
Around 1811, Abraham Stern built a “computing machine” that could perform four basic operations. Over the following years, he improved his invention so that it could be used to calculate the square root of numbers. With the help of Stanisław Staszic, he presented his invention to the members of the Warsaw Society of Friends of Science. Abraham Stern’s design was highly evaluated, which resulted in the Society granting him financial support and thus making it possible to continue working on his invention.
In 1816, Abraham Stern had an opportunity to present his design to Tsar Alexander I, who was passing through the Kingdom of Poland. Impressed by Stern’s achievements, the tsar awarded the inventor a government salary that enabled him to continue his work.
breakthrough invention, a mechanical computing machine, brought Stern fame and wide recognition among the academic elites of the time. However, much to Stern’s disappointment, his invention did not find a practical application. No one wanted to produce such a precise mechanism. Today, historians agree that the society at that time was very wary of any technical innovations and Stern’s invention had preceded its time by several decades.
After these experiences, Abraham Stern devoted his time to less innovative, but more practical business inventions, namely agricultural machinery (thresher, reaper), lumber mill and rangefinder, used in land surveying and cartography.
In the 1820s, in recognition of Stern’s achievements and predicting the potential of the talented designer, the Berlin Academy of Sciences offered him a trip to Germany. Stern was offered large funds to finance his engineering work. However, Abraham Stern said: “I did not want to even think of leaving my home country”.
In his letters, Stern wrote: “(...) the physical weakness of man proves that nature ordered him to use the power of his mind rather than the power of his muscles in his work. Therefore, he should strive to push the boundaries of mechanics, as its study makes them rich. Man should make machines and operate them, while they should do the hard work for him. Nations which perfected industry rule the world, while those who have neglected it, grew weak, ignorant, poor or became enslaved. (...).”
Abraham Stern died in Warsaw on 2 February 1842.
It is a surprising paradox that while Abraham is widely known for his scientific achievements, he also wrote poetry.
Abraham Stern did not hide his origin and was proud of it. He wore a black, satin żupan, a traditional Polish long garment for men, and a silk belt as well as a black satin traditional skullcap. As an orthodox Jew, he had a thorough knowledge of the Talmud. He was also well versed in Hebrew literature.
The only prototype of Stern’s computing machine, kept in Krakow’s Museum of Industry, was destroyed during World War II.
Antoni Słonimski, a well-known Polish poet, is Abraham Stern’s great-grandson.
In 1830, Stern was the first Polish Jew to become an active member of the elite Society of Friends of Science.