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The Forgotten Genius of Ramon Verea: Inventor of the First Direct Multiplication Machine

The annals of computing history are filled with tales of brilliant inventors and the groundbreaking machines they created. But for every Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, or Steve Jobs who is rightly celebrated for their contributions, there are countless other ingenious pioneers whose names and works have faded into obscurity.

One such forgotten genius is the Spanish inventor Ramon Silvestre Verea García. In 1878, working as a journalist and publisher in New York City, Verea patented a remarkable new calculating machine capable of direct multiplication—a feat that leading mathematicians like Pascal and Leibniz had failed to mechanize, and which no practical device had yet been able to accomplish. And yet today, Verea and his extraordinary invention are virtually unknown, even among many technology historians.

From Galicia to New York

So who was Ramon Verea, and what drove him to create his calculating machine? Born in 1833 in the town of Curantes in Spain‘s Galicia region, Verea led a colorful life. He spent over a decade living in Cuba before settling in New York City in 1865, where he found work as a journalist for the Spanish-language magazine La América and as an agent brokering Spanish inventions and gold/currency trades.

It was this side business dealing in Spanish currency that first got Verea interested in the challenge of mechanical calculation. As he later recounted in the April 1, 1881 issue of Las Novedades:

"My object in undertaking an invention at first sight impossible it was not the hope of refunding even a part of several thousand dollars that I have spent; neither it was to became a celebrity like others, my ambition was driven by: 1) A little egoism; 2) Much patriotism, the desire to prove that in inventive genius a Spaniard can leave behind the eminences of the most cultured nations; 3) The innate eagerness to contribute something to the advancement of science; and lastly 4) Entertainment according to my tastes and inclinations."

Frustrated with the tedious process of tallying figures by hand, Verea set out to design a machine to make the task faster and less error-prone. But rather than settle for the limitations of existing calculating machines, which could only perform multiplication via repeated addition, Verea aimed to create something far more ambitious—a mechanism that could multiply numbers directly.

How It Worked

The machine Verea designed and built was a marvel of mechanical engineering. Using an intricate system of pins, racks, and rotating cylinders, it could almost instantaneously multiply numbers up to 9 digits in length and produce answers up to 15 digits long.

Here‘s how it worked: The user began by inputting the digits of the multiplicand using a series of knobs along the top of the machine. Each knob rotated a 10-sided cylinder with staggered pins of varying lengths protruding from its sides. The length of each pin corresponded to a specific digit, with longer pins representing higher values.

Next, the multiplier was entered using a row of sliding racks positioned above the cylinders. Turning a hand crank engaged the racks against the pins. In a single rotation, the pins entered holes in the racks, pushing them back an amount corresponding to the value of the multiplicand digits. This in turn advanced a result cylinder at the back of the machine. A carry mechanism shifted the result from one digit column to the next as needed.

The effect was that all the partial products and carries were calculated and accumulated in one go, producing the final product almost instantly. A cylindrical cage transmitted the movement and allowed the cylinders to return to their starting position after each rotation, readying it for the next calculation.

The Spanish journal La América described the advantages of Verea‘s design in its January 1879 issue:

"In all the mechanisms applied up to now to obtain the product of two numbers mechanically, the multiplication is reduced, either to make the corresponding additions one by one, which is very long, or to perform the partial products and then add them to each other. The machine of Mr. Verea is the first and only one in which the factors are entered and automatically the product appears already made without partial operations that delay it or complicate the mechanism. The multiplication is done directly, which constitutes an admirable invention."

It was a groundbreaking design that leapfrogged earlier attempts at mechanical multiplication, including American inventor Edmund Barbour‘s 1872 direct multiplication machine which lacked a carry mechanism between digit columns. Indeed, Verea claimed he was unaware of Barbour‘s work when developing his own device, making the similarity in their thinking all the more remarkable.

Computing by Turning a Crank

Contemporary accounts marveled at the speed of Verea‘s machine. During one 1878 demonstration reported in the New York Herald, it calculated the product of 698,543,721 x 807,689 in just twenty seconds. By comparison, even an experienced human computer would have needed many tedious minutes to perform such a calculation by hand. As the Herald put it:

"The work is almost instantaneous and the accuracy of it unimpeachable… [In a demo] the machine while the reporter and an accountant were trying to write out the product which they had already arrived at by a mental process."

To put Verea‘s accomplishment in perspective, it‘s important to understand just how difficult a challenge direct multiplication posed in his day. As IBM founder Herman Hollerith later explained:

"The chief difficulty which all [prior] inventors had encountered lay in the process of carrying tens from one column to another… most inventors had sought to avoid it by having the machine merely add the several partial products one after another. Verea conceived the idea of performing the process of carrying simultaneously with the multiplication."

Or as historian Georges Ifrah elaborated in his Universal History of Computing:

"The mechanical processes required for tens-carry operations are very complicated and they involve extremely elaborate mechanical devices. The first of these devices that gave satisfactory results was invented by the Spaniard Ramón Verea… His machine, which was designed and built between 1876 and 1878, possessed tens-carry mechanisms, and was the first to be able automatically to deliver the product of two numbers entered on a keyboard, merely by turning a handle once for each figure in the multiplier."

The fact that Verea, a journalist by trade with no formal mathematical or engineering training, could devise such an elegant and effective solution to this longstanding problem is a testament to his extraordinary talent and insight.

An Inventor Ahead of His Time

Verea‘s multiplying machine drew rave reviews from all who saw it. It won a gold medal at the 1878 Exposición Mundial de Inventos de Cuba in Matanzas. The Scientific American praised it as "ingenious" and capable of "rapidly performing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division." The New York Herald said "the accuracy of it [was] unimpeachable."

But for all the excitement it generated, the Verea Direct Multiplier soon fell into obscurity. Only two prototypes were ever built – one sent to the U.S. Patent Office with Verea‘s 1878 patent application, and another exhibited in Cuba before disappearing. Verea, content with having proven his point, never attempted to put it into production.

Whether due to the machine‘s complexity, high manufacturing costs, or Verea‘s own lack of interest in commercializing it, this cutting-edge device quickly became a mere footnote in computing history. It would be years before other inventors like Bollée, Steiger, and Hamann incorporated direct multiplication into their mechanical calculators. Not until 1946 and the advent of ENIAC would an electronic computer match the Verea multiplier‘s capabilities.

Engineer and historian Stephan Weiss summed up Verea‘s place in computing history in a 1981 article in the Annals of the History of Computing:

"Verea did not have the satisfaction of seeing his machine go into quantity production, as happened with some of the later direct multipliers of Bolle´e and Steiger in Europe. But the fact remains that Verea, a virtual unknown in his own lifetime, let alone now, produced the first fully operational direct multiplier, and one that worked well besides."

Some have speculated how computing history might have unfolded differently had Verea further pursued mechanical calculation. In his comprehensive work The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann, Herman Goldstine mused:

"Who knows what Verea might have accomplished had he continued with this work. But he was content to show the world that he could build such a machine—and then he quit. One can only conjecture what he might have done had he lived in our age of computers."

Indeed, Verea‘s story is one of a brilliant mind with a passion for problem-solving, but little interest in personal glory or commercial success. In an alternate history, perhaps he would have joined forces with the likes of Charles Babbage to accelerate the development of programmable computers. Or maybe he would have founded a thriving business to rival the computing giants of today.

But Verea was satisfied with his singular feat of ingenuity. Having proven to the world what a clever Spaniard could accomplish, he returned to his first love of journalism, leaving behind his masterpiece for posterity. Today, that original prototype remains carefully preserved deep within the IBM corporate archives – a long-obsolete machine, but an enduring symbol of innovation, patriotism, and the thrill of an impossible problem conquered.

The forgotten genius of Ramon Verea is a testament to the remarkable things that can be achieved by a brilliant and determined mind, even if the world isn‘t quite ready for them. Though his name has faded, his spirit of inventiveness and love for the "innate eagerness to contribute something to the advancement of science" lives on in the generations of computing pioneers who have followed in his footsteps – turning the crank of progress ever forward.


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