The Arithmeum

If it hadn’t been for my guidebook, I might have missed out on seeing Bonn. As it was, the day trip out of Cologne was worth it, just for the two museums I visited.

The museum that drew me to Bonn, for Neil’s sake, was the Arithmeum. It advertises itself as the convergence of art and the art of calculation, but when it comes down to it, it’s a calculator museum. But, oh, what a calculator museum it is. It collects every kind of calculator you can think of, polishes it up, and revels in its abilities.

There are simple calculators, like this one, which is little more than a multiplication table:


And many more sophisticated ones, like this one, which can probably add, subtract and multiply in funky mad mathematician style:


And even more complex ones like this census calculator which worked with punch cards long before punch card computers came into being:


And if Neil had been with me, he would have been more delighted still that it was a hands-on calculator museum. I didn’t even know that was the case until I saw this guy trying to puzzle out how to add two numbers with this old-fashioned machine:


I tried my hand at multiplying 742 by 82 with this calculator, carefully following the instructions in the step-by-step guide next to it:


It was unbelievably complex. I think it would be easier to play a piano. First I had to place three fingers to cover the digits 7, 4, and 2 on the furthest right hand side of the calculator and press them twice sequentially. Then I had to move my hands over a row (essentially as if I were typing 7,420) and press down 8 times. The first time I did it, my fingers slipped and I had to start over. The second time, the machine got stuck. Really, sometimes pencil and paper works better…

There were huge primitive 10-key machines that took up an entire table, computer vacuum tubes, and an Enigma machine, complete with full instructions on how it worked (though it was one of the few machines you couldn’t play with.)


As an aside, I used to think Enigma machines were a rare military curiosity, but I saw at least 4 altogether in the museums I visited.

The Arithmeum also had a fair degree of geometric art, but the art that intrigued me the most was the square lockers with equally square keys.

Only the middle portion of the glass building that houses the Arithmeum is actually the museum, and while curious about the other portions I found out the Arithmeum is actually part of Bonn University’s math department. That figures: this is exactly the sort of stuff mathematicians would love. They’d appreciate toying with complex calculators and how they worked, even if hand reckoning would be faster.

I know Neil could have spent all day there, but I was keen to go on and see some of the museums on Bonn’s Museum Mile.

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