Erwin Tomash Library offers insight into history of computing, geometry, and mathematics

A casual interest in the history of computing led Erwin Tomash, who started his career in computer engineering in the 1940s and became one of the pioneers of the information age, to compile an encyclopedic, illustrated catalog of primary source references dating back to the 12th century CE. The catalog is available online for free access.

By his own admission, Erwin Tomash did not in the 1940s and 1950s expect computers to become as much a part of our lives as they have. By the 1970s, he writes, he had begun to realize that computers were profoundly changing society.

He had always been interested in mechanical calculating devices and early computing, and this interest led him to collect antique books and manuscripts. Eventually, he became fascinated by the books and (to a lesser extent) manuscripts as physical objects.

Over a thirty year period, Tomash produced a compendium of over three thousand abstracts and reference citations, many with illustrations from the primary source itself. In the Preface to the catalog, Tomash describes his reasons for creating it:

"My intention in creating this library has been to gather primary sources in a way that has not been done before in order to reveal and illuminate the sequence of the development of computing. The collection as a whole documents the roots of the history of computing. Included in its scope are books on all forms of reckoning, including finger reckoning, and on other aids to calculation such as the slide rule and the abacus. While the library holds works in common with other rare book collections such as the Adler Planetarium Collection of Instrument Books and with more far-reaching and general rare book collections such as those of the British Museum (which seems to have everything), the Huntington Library and the Clark Library, this is the only rare book collection I know of in the history of science that focuses on computation.

"As soon as people began producing books, they produced books as aids to reckoning. By bringing together these more than 3,000 books dating from 1180 to 1955, it was possible to study the separate innovations in relation to one another. Thus, the collection provides a context for understanding the development of computation stretching from the Venerable Bede’s finger calculation; to the Roman abacus; to Napier’s invention of logarithms; to Oughtred’s creation of the slide rule; to computing machines such as Pascal’s Pascaline, the Leibniz stepped drum, and the first machine to reach production status, the Thomas Arithmometer; and finally, to Aiken’s Computation Laboratory at Harvard, which presaged the modern computer."

Although many of the sources are out of period for the SCA, a surprising number of the citations either pre-date 1600 or are nearly in-period, giving insight into the scientific and mathematical thought process of that era.

The catalog is about much more than just computing devices. It includes books and treatises describing calculating algorithms that can be executed on paper, for tasks such as computing cube roots or solving geometrical proofs.

The extensive library, downloadable as a set of more than thirty Adobe Acrobat™ (PDF) files, is republished with permission on the web site of the IEEE Computer Society, a North American professional organization of electrical and computer engineers.

Thanks to Justin's modern-world boss, Dr. David Boyes, for providing the link.