This Day in Tech History

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Hydraulics and Conic Sections

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August 19, 1662: Blaise Pascal, French Mathematician, Physicist, and Philosopher Dies

He is credited with inventing an early calculator, amazingly advanced for its time, called the Pascaline. His inventions include the hydraulic press and the syringe.  It was he who invented roulette in the 17th century in his search for a perpetual motion machine.

A Pascaline, signed by Pascal in 1652

A Pascaline, signed by Pascal in 1652

Blaise Pascal experiments greatly increased knowledge of the atmosphere.   A unit of atmospheric pressure is named in his honor.  A pascal is the force of one newton acting on a surface area of one square meter. It is the unit of pressure designated by the International System. l00,OOO Pa= 1000mb 1 bar.

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Barrel Experiment

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He invented the arithmetical triangle, and together with Fermat created the calculus of probabilities. His first serious work of mathematics is known still today as Pascal’s theorem. It states that if a hexagon is inscribed in a circle (or conic) then the three intersection points of opposite sides lie on a line (called the Pascal line).

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Pascal’s triangle. Each number is the sum of the two directly above it. The triangle demonstrates many mathematical properties in addition to showing binomial coefficients.

He was the first reported person to actually wear a watch on the wrist (with a piece of string, he attached his pocket watch to his wrist).

A genuis from a young age, Blaise Pascal composed a treatise on the communication of sounds at the age of twelve, and at the age of sixteen he composed a treatise on conic sections (in mathematics, a conic section is a curve obtained as the intersection of a cone with a plane; shown above).

In 1642, in an effort to ease his father’s endless, exhausting calculations, and recalculations, of taxes owed and paid, Pascal, not yet 19, constructed a mechanical calculator capable of addition and subtraction, called Pascal’s calculator or the Pascaline.

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Blaise Pascal

When Blaise Pascal fiddled around with some simple but startling observations that would eventually mature into probability theory, he was letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle. Probability theory and the discoveries following it changed the way we regard uncertainty, risk, decision-making, and an individual’s and society’s ability to influence the course of future events.

Early Roulette Wheel

Early Roulette Wheel

But the real beauty of Pascal’s achievement lies in its recognition that mathematical principle, not just the bettor’s hunch, could be applied to figuring out the odds in a game of chance. Here was the very idea of probability: establishing the numerical odds of a future event with mathematical precision. Remarkably, no one else had cracked the puzzle of probability before, although the Greeks and Romans had come close.

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