Photo Credit: National Museum in Kraków
Avraham Stern demonstrating one of his calculating machines in Warsaw, at a public hearing of the Friends of Sciences Society, before 1830.

Polish archaeologists this week discovered the tomb of famous Jewish inventor Avraham Stern (1762 – 1842), best known for his mechanical calculators which are considered the precursors of cybernetics. The archaeologists dug out of Stern’s grave a sewage pipe containing the remains of a prayer book, a leather box with Torah portions, and fragments of a buried Sefer Torah.

Remigiusz Sosnowski, manager of the Jewish cemetery in the Bródno neighborhood of Warsaw, told Fakt that in 1939, two newly built pavilions with toilets were installed in the cemetery, and “we can presume that after this installation, redundant pipes remained in the cemetery or were destroyed during the Nazi bombings.”

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He explained that, in keeping with Jewish tradition, Torah scrolls that are not usable must not be destroyed but instead should be packed in clay jugs, taken to the cemetery, and buried there. Apparently, in Bródno, a sewage pipe was used as a burial vessel.

The archaeologists were searching for the grave of Antoni Słonimski’s great-grandfather. Słonimski (1895 – 1976), was a Polish poet, artist, journalist, playwright, and prose writer, and the founder, in 1918, of the literary movement group Skamander.

In 1842, Avraham Stern’s youngest daughter married Słonimski’s grandfather, Hayyim Selig Slonimski, the founder of Ha’Tzefirah, the first Hebrew weekly that dealt with the sciences. Antoni Słonimski’s father, an ophthalmologist, converted to Christianity when he married a Catholic woman. Antoni Słonimski was born in Warsaw, was baptized, and raised as a Christian.

Portrait of Avraham Stern, 1823. / Rechenmaschinen-illustrated.com

Starting in 1810, Avraham Stern constructed a series of calculating machines that performed the four basic arithmetic operations and could also extract square roots. As a boy, he worked for a watchmaker in Hrubieszów, where he caught the eye of Stanisław Staszic, a leading figure in the Polish Enlightenment movement who was a Catholic priest, philosopher, geologist, writer, poet, translator, and statesman. Staszic helped Stern settle in Warsaw, which at the time was barred to Jews.

Avraham Stern’s first major invention was a mechanical calculator, which he perfected in 1817, and which could calculate the square roots of numbers. This attracted wide attention and led to his election in 1817 to become the first Jewish member of the Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science.

In 1816, and again in 1818, Stern was presented to Tsar Alexander I, who granted him an annual pension of 350 rubles from the state treasury, promising to pay half of this sum to his widow. In the feverish two decades that followed, Stern’s career became reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s, as he developed, in addition to the precursor of the modern computer, a topographical wagon for the measurement of level surfaces, an invention of great value to both civil and military engineers, improved the threshing and harvesting machines of his time, and invented a new form of a sickle.

Stern always remained an Orthodox Jew, wore a yarmulke, and when he stayed in the castle of a Polish nobleman – statesman, diplomat, and author Adam Czartoryski, a Jewish cook was hired to prepare his meals.

Stern was a sworn enemy of Chassidic Judaism which was flourishing in Poland during his lifetime. He was appointed inspector of Jewish schools, censor of Hebrew texts, and member of the Komitet Starozakonnych (Jewish Advisory Council to the Committee for Jewish Affairs). He also designed the rabbinical school in Warsaw.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.
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