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Abraham Stern: Man should make machines and control them

Today, on 3 February 2017, we celebrate the 175th death anniversary of Abraham Stern, Poland's most outstanding inventor of calculating machines.


Before the world was dominated by programmable digital machines, extraordinary minds came up with ideas for “calculating machines”, also known as arithmometers, that would help man in performing arduous mathematical calculations.

The pioneers that are most often quoted in this context include Wilhelm Schickard, a German (1592-1635), the maker of a wooden machine performing four basic arithmetic functions (1623); great mathematicians – Pascal and Leibniz; and English inventors – Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and Ada Lovelace (1815-1852). It turns out that outstanding achievements in this area were also made by Polish Jews, mostly clockmakers, in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jewna Jakobson from Niśwież was probably the first such an inventor on record. In the mid-18th century, this clockmaker of the noble Radziwiłł family constructed a machine that could add, subtract, multiply and divide; interestingly, one such machine has survived and today is part of the Kunstkamera collection in St Petersburg. Jakobson probably drew upon Schickard's design. Izrael Abraham Staffel (1814-1884) is also worth noting. He was the inventor of the “accounting machine”, the “mathematical calculator” and also a printing machine that printed the first Polish post stamp, the so-called Poland No. 1, in the Stempel Factory in Warsaw. And finally, there was Stern's follower, his son-in-law – Chaim Zelig Słonimski (1810-1904), who received in 1844 an award from the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg for his scientific work on the improved version of the arithmetic machine.


Even set against this exceptional ground, Abraham Stern seems to be an unusual figure. “Stern was born in Hrubieszów, a small town of the former Lubelskie province, in 1769. His parents, who were very poor, could not afford to pay for his upkeep and sent him to a clockmaker to learn the trade. The works of the young apprentice soon attracted the attention of local citizens and when Stanisław Staszic bought Hrubieszów, he discovered and assessed Stern's skills” – it was the same Staszic, who could hardly be described as sympathetic towards the Jewish community (“Jewery makes our villages poor and our cities smelly”). Despite the unquestionable career that Stern made in the capital city of Warsaw, he never lost his identity of a provincial Jew, wearing a big beard and traditional clothes. Eugeniusz Skrodzki recalled that “he always covered his head with a black velvet krymka, and his forehead was elevated and full of wrinkles due to constant thinking. His bushy eyebrows hid a pair of fiery, shrewd, intelligent and beautiful eyes, and he always used to carry an old and ragged umbrella under his arm no matter what the weather, in winter and summer alike. At public sittings of the [Friends of Sciences] Society, Stern's Jewish clothes among black tailcoats worn by his colleagues always puzzled people who were not aware who he was.” He was buried in the Praga district cemetery, not so prominent as its Warsaw counterpart, among other provincial newcomers, Hasidim and the poor.


Similarly to many great figures, Stern was ahead of his time. His inventions were not fully understood by the members of the Friends of Sciences Society, despite the fact that trade or construction calculations of that time were becoming increasingly complex and exceeded the capabilities of an ordinary accountant equipped with an abacus. As Adam Empacher put it: “In their understanding, the calculating machine was in fact nothing more than a smart toy and also too expensive to consider popularising it”. This happened despite the fact that Stern himself presented a completely different credo: “Man's physical weakness proves that nature ordered him to work more with the force of the mind rather than the force of the body. So he should try to expand the boundaries of mechanics as it offers wealth and power to countries where it is pursued. Man should make machines and control them, and they should take his arduous work from him. Nations that developed industry rule the world, while those who neglected it have become weak, backward, poor and enslaved”.

You will find Abraham Stern's biography in our biographical note (available only in Polish).

Quotations from Eugeniusz Skrodzki's memoirs and the book by A.B. Empacher Do Machines Count on Their Own? after the article “Co stało się z maszyną Sterna? (What happened to Stern's machine?)”, [in:] Focus. Historia, 25 March 2013 [online] [accessed on 3 February 2017], in which the reader can also find a number of other interesting details. The final quote from Stern after Janusz Stokłosa's text “Abraham Stern – pierwszy polski konstruktor maszyn liczących (Abraham Stern – the first Polish constructor of calculating machines)”, published in the Informatyka periodical, 1986, No. 2-3, p. 32.