Greetings, friend! Today I want to tell you the fascinating story of Heinrich Kummer, a 19th century German musician and inventor who made pioneering contributions to mechanical calculation. Though largely forgotten now, Kummer‘s creativity and innovation deserve recognition.
Let‘s start at the beginning – Kummer‘s early life and musical talents. He was born on November 8, 1809 in Dresden, Germany to Gotthelf and Wilhelmine Kummer. His father Gotthelf came from a distinguished musical dynasty and worked as a renowned bassoon soloist. Heinrich was immersed in music from an early age. By age 4, he was performing simple piano pieces. And by 6, he began playing concertos on tour with his father across Germany, dazzling audiences with his natural talent.
Growing up, Heinrich received first-rate musical education from his father, a virtuoso bassoonist. By his teens, he mastered not only piano but also bassoon, violin and voice. Though he never quite matched his father‘s fame, Heinrich became an accomplished musician in his own right. For instance, in 1832 he secured a position teaching piano to a prominent Polish family.
After relocating to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1834, Heinrich‘s musical career reached its peak when he was appointed first bassoonist in the Imperial Theatre Orchestra in 1837. This was a prestigious role he held for a decade until retiring in 1847. As first chair bassoon, Heinrich performed in over 500 orchestral and operatic productions in the imperial capital.
Yet despite his musical talents, Heinrich felt unfulfilled. His true passion was invention and mechanics. Fascinated by gadgets since childhood, he spent hours meticulously building complex mechanical toys. As an adult, Heinrich devoted more and more time to engineering innovations. Let‘s look at some of Kummer‘s brilliant inventions and their impact.
Arguably Kummer‘s most important creation was his adding machine, first unveiled in 1846. This mechanical calculator could rapidly sum long columns of numbers far faster than humans. Kummer simplified previous designs to create a portable, hand-cranked device. Weighing just 4kg, his adder fit on a tabletop and was a breakthrough in accessibility.
To understand just how revolutionary Kummer‘s machine was, consider this: a skilled accountant in the 1840s could compute about 50 additions per minute by hand. Kummer‘s device could effortlessly perform 300 sums per minute! This allowed businesses and governments, for the first time, to conveniently calculate large quantities for budgets, commerce and taxes.
The Russian Academy of Sciences tested Kummer‘s invention and concluded it was "incomparably simpler and more convenient in use" than prior models. Kummer shrewdly obtained a Russian patent in 1847, protecting his creation. He worked with Moscow engineer Kartsov to manufacture and market the machines. Sales data shows they produced approximately 2,500 units between 1847 and Kummer‘s death in 1880, mostly selling to Russian government agencies.
Beyond his adding machine, Kummer designed other ingenious mechanical devices. For example, in 1837 he conceived plans for a revolutionary new drawbridge over St. Petersburg‘s Neva River. Unlike traditional drawbridges of the era, Kummer‘s version could rise vertically to permit ships to pass while road traffic continued uninterrupted overhead. Though never built, his design demonstrated remarkable creativity and engineering skill.
Kummer also constructed mesmerizing automata that mimicked animals and humans. Intricate mechanisms, powered by watch springs, allowed his devices to realistically swim, fly and walk. This reflected Kummer‘s passion for understanding motion and mechanics in the natural world.
The cultural atmosphere of 19th century Russia fostered Kummer‘s unconventional path from music to math. St. Petersburg‘s arts and sciences flourished under Tsar Nicholas I. Engineers and inventors enjoyed privileged positions, sought after for their expertise. Kummer leveraged this creative environment to follow his dreams and develop groundbreaking technologies like his famous calculator.
In the years after retiring from music, Kummer continued to invent, proving his talent spanned both arts and sciences. Following his passion, he designed rifles and wrote a book on sharpshooting. He even traveled to America to patent an improved version of his adding machine.
While Kummer‘s technologies may seem simple today, we have him to thank for pioneering this field. His ingenious adding machine helped mechanize routine calculation, setting the stage for modern computers. Though overshadowed by bigger names like Charles Babbage, Kummer made crucial strides in the evolution of calculation. His drive to simplify existing machines moved the technology forward.
So let us appreciate this forgotten 19th century inventor and musician who contributed so much to the foundations of modern computing. Heinrich Kummer‘s creativity, innovation and versatility made him truly a man ahead of his time!