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          A Victorian "Calculator"

    Here is the oldest calculator I own: Ropp's Commercial Calculator. A "calculator" it is - says so right on the red cover. Copyright by C. Ropp of Bloomington, Illinois, in 1887, at the height of the Victorian age.
    This is a reminder of those times when "Computer" meant "a person who makes a living by calculating mathematical tables by hand", despite Charles Babbage's dream of mechanizing that task with a steam-driven "analytical engine". The Ropp booklet is full of useful mathematical information, methods and tables spanning 128 pages. And it does some stuff that a Pentium machine user would be hard pressed to
Ropp's Commercial Calculator
 do - like computing the price of batches of hogs, cattle, grain, and other commodities. As the "Manufacturer and Builder" magazine stated in a review in its December 1890 issue, this "condensed vest-pocket book" contains "tables for the use of cattlemen, grain handlers, cotton dealers, farmers, grocers, and others, which will spare them much time and trouble, and many a headache". Just what we're trying to do today with our modern computers, to varying degrees of success...
    The names of the tables provide an intriguing peek into the commercial world of another age. They include "Table throwing the Weight of GRAIN, seeds, &c., into Bushels and Odd Pounds", "Millers' and Farmers' Exchange Table", "Table showing the value of Baled COTTON", "Ginners' table, showing the Toll of COTTON", and "Table showing SPECIFIC GRAVITY of well known substances", the latter including Ale, Beeswax, Gum Arabic and Lignum Vitae.
Detail from Ropp's Calculator    Detail from Ropp's Calculator    Detail from Ropp's Calculator    Detail from Ropp's Calculator
Click a photo to enlarge
    Originally I had no idea who C. Ropp was, though I found some references on the Web to show that his handiwork continued to appear in new editions until at least 1919. But then I got a message from Mr. Joseph Staker, who presented himself as a relative of the author of the Commercial Calculator! This turns out to have been Christian Ropp Jr. (1837-1929), an enterprising Amish Mennonite farmer from Illinois. Mr. Staker kindly permitted me to publish his detailed message. Click here to read it!

Exhibit provenance:
    I found this item, rather unexpectedly, while searching eBay for vintage calculators.

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