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Fascinating facts about Blaise Pascal
inventor of a  mechanical adding machine in 1642.
Blaise Pascal
Inventor: Blaise Pascal
Portrait of Blaise Pascal derived from public domain
Criteria: First to invent. First practical.
Birth: June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France
Death: August 19, 1662 in Paris, France
Nationality: French

Blaise Pascal, French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, considered one of the great minds in Western intellectual history.  Inventor of the  first mechanical adding machine.

Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand on June 19, 1623, and his family settled in Paris in 1629. Under the tutelage of his father, Pascal soon proved himself a mathematical prodigy, and at the age of 16 he formulated one of the basic theorems of projective geometry, known as Pascal's theorem and described in his Essai pour les coniques (Essay on Conics, 1639).

In 1642 he invented the first mechanical adding machine. Pascal proved by experimentation in 1648 that the level of the mercury column in a barometer is determined by an increase or decrease in the surrounding atmospheric pressure rather than by a vacuum, as previously believed. This discovery verified the hypothesis of the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli concerning the effect of atmospheric pressure on the equilibrium of liquids. Six years later, in conjunction with the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, Pascal formulated the mathematical theory of probability, which has become important in such fields as actuarial, mathematical, and social statistics and as a fundamental element in the calculations of modern theoretical physics.

Pascal's other important scientific contributions include the derivation of Pascal's law or principle, which states that fluids transmit pressures equally in all directions, and his investigations in the geometry of infinitesimal. His methodology reflected his emphasis on empirical experimentation as opposed to analytical, a priori methods, and he believed that human progress is perpetuated by the accumulation of scientific discoveries resulting from such experimentation.

Pascal espoused Jansenism and in 1654 entered the Jansenist community at Port Royal, where he led a rigorously ascetic life until his death eight years later. In 1656 he wrote the famous 18 Lettres provinciales (Provincial Letters), in which he attacked the Jesuits for their attempts to reconcile 16th-century naturalism with orthodox Roman Catholicism.

His most positive religious statement appeared posthumously (he died August 19, 1662); it was published in fragmentary form in 1670 as Apologie de la religion Chrétienne (Apology of the Christian Religion). In these fragments, which later were incorporated into his major work, he posed the alternatives of potential salvation and eternal damnation, with the implication that only by conversion to Jansenism could salvation be achieved. Pascal asserted that whether or not salvation was achieved, humanity's ultimate destiny is an afterlife belonging to a supernatural realm that can only be known intuitively. Pascal's final important work was Pensées sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets (Thoughts on Religion and on Other Subjects), also published in 1670. In the Pensées Pascal attempted to explain and justify the difficulties of human life by the doctrine of original sin, and he contended that revelation can be comprehended only by faith, which in turn is justified by revelation.

Pascal's writings urging acceptance of the Christian life contain frequent applications of the calculations of probability; he reasoned that the value of eternal happiness is infinite and that although the probability of gaining such happiness by religion may be small it is infinitely greater than by any other course of human conduct or belief. A reclassification of the Pensées, a careful work begun in 1935 and continued by several scholars, does not reconstruct the Apologie, but allows the reader to follow the plan that Pascal himself would have followed.

Pascal was one of the most eminent mathematicians and physicists of his day and one of the greatest mystical writers in Christian literature. His religious works are personal in their speculation on matters beyond human understanding. He is generally ranked among the finest French polemicists, especially in the Lettres provinciales, a classic in the literature of irony. Pascal's prose style is noted for its originality and, in particular, for its total lack of artifice. He affects his readers by his use of logic and the passionate force of his dialectic.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
History of Computing    from The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Adding Machine   from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle : And Other Surprising Stories About Inventions
by Don L. Wulffson / Paperback - 128 pages (1999) / Puffin

Brief factual stories about how various familiar things were invented, many by accident, from animal crackers to the zipper.
Making Sense of It All Pascal and the Meaning of Life
Thomas V. Morris / Paperback - 214 pages / Wm. B. Eeerdmans Pub.

His lucid reflections provide fresh, fertile insights and perspectives for any thoughtful person journeying through life.
Pascal: The Great Philosophers
by Ben Rogers / Paperback: 58 pages / Routledge; 1 edition (July, 1999)
In just 64 pages, each author, a specialist on his subject, places the philosopher and his ideas into historical perspective. Each volume explains, in simple terms, the basic concepts, enriching the narrative through the effective use of biographical detail. And instead of attempting to explain the philosopher's entire intellectual history, which can be daunting, this series takes one central theme in each philosopher's work, using it to unfold the philosopher's thoughts.


ON THE WEB:
Blaise Pascal
Pascal's Pascaline Calculator This offers  an overview of the advances in science that made desktop computers possible starting with the invention of counting.
(URL: www.eingang.org/Lecture/pascaline.html)
The First Adding Machine
Adding machines date back to the 17th century. They started with simple machines that could only add (and sometimes subtract.) Many were rather tricky to use and could produce erroneous results with untrained users. 
(URL: www.hpmuseum.org/adder.htm)
Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)

From `A Short Account of the History of Mathematics' (4th edition, 1908) by W. W. Rouse Ball.
(URL: www.maths.tcd.ie/pub/HistMath/People/Pascal/RouseBall/RB_Pascal.html)
Pascaline
Invented one of the first mechanical calculators: the pascalinePascal, genius by any measure, died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 39. From The History of Computing Project.
(URL: www.thocp.net/biographies/pascal_blaise.html)
The Calculators Museum
The Museum of HP Calculators displays and describes Hewlett-Packard calculators introduced from 1968 to 1986 plus a few interesting later models. There are also sections on calculating machines and slide rules as well as sections for buying and selling HP calculators, an HP timeline, collecting information and a software library.
(URL: www.hpmuseum.org/)
Blaise Pascal Biography
Pascal, Blaise (1623-62), French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, considered one of the great minds in Western intellectual history. A student ThinkQuest project.
(URL: library.thinkquest.org/10170/voca/pascal.htm)


WORDS OF WISDOM:
"The heart has its reasons that the mind knows nothing of. " - Blaise Pascal

"If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing."  - Blaise Pascal

"Since we cannot know all that there is to be known about anything, we ought to know a little about everything." - Blaise Pascal

DID YOU KNOW?

  • The Zwinger museum, in Dresden, Germany, exhibits one of his original mechanical calculators.
  • Pascal continued to make improvements to his design through the next decade and built fifty machines in total.
  • In honor of his scientific contributions, the name Pascal has been given to the SI unit of pressure, to a programming language, and Pascal's law (an important principle of hydrostatics).
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised October 19, 2006.
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