Written by Sue Gee
Sunday, 01 July 2018

Today's Google Doodle is a homage to German mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz, who was born on July 1st 1646. He is renowned for developing the modern forms of differential and integral calculus. He also made a significant contribution to computer technology by introducing the multiplier wheel in an early calculating machine.

Rather than present his familiar portrait, by the artist Christoph Berhard Franke, the Gogle Doodle for Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's 372nd Birthday depicts binary numbers  written with a quill pen. This really does sum up the scenario. Leibniz lived in a very different, entirely non-technological age but came up with major contributions to the technology that would take us into the computer age.

As we explain in Pre-history of Computing, Leibniz is best known for the co-invention of calculus along with Newton and the acrimonious rows that ensued between them. His role in computing technology was in improving the design of the Pascaline, an adding machine invented in 1642 by Blaise Pascal to help his father, an accountant, to do the tedious manual work of balancing the books. Leibniz recognized the  weakness of the Pascaline, the fact that multiplication had to be done by repeated addition and solved the problem by inventing a multiplier wheel which was incorporated into the design around 1673. Two machines were built around 1673 and one still survives today.

This was a brilliant invention and it not only worked it formed the basis of all of the mechanical calculators that followed right up to the point where they were made obsolete by the electronic computer. It could have had a world-changing impact, but Leibniz lost interest and indeed grew bored with it.

In the realm of pure mathematics, Leibniz started to think about the number base used to represent numbers. Mathematicians of the time understood the idea of using different bases but the general opinion was that base ten was the best. Leibniz on the other hand became convinced that binary was to be preferred. From our viewpoint the reason for using binary arithmetic in computers is its simplicity - building a binary calculator is easier than building a decimal one.  However the reason that Leibniz was so keen on binary was that he thought it would be possible to use it to prove the existence of God. In his logic one symbolized God and zero the empty universe. No one was very impressed by this mixture of philosophy and mysticism but he did convert the Emperor of China using the argument.

What would have happened if instead of metaphysics, Leibniz had managed to make the connection between his mechanical calculator and binary? Perhaps the information age would have been introduced along with steam engines.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, born in Leipig, Saxony on 1 July, 1646.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz - Wikipedia

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