05/12/2021

PC Moments #001 – Tally ho!   20,000 BCE

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Computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.  Picasso

The word ‘computer’ emerged in the 17th century.  It described a person who performed calculations, and right through to the mid 20th century the term remained in use relating to a role not a device.  Rather in the way a dishwasher was originally a person and not a machine.

Being human we needed assistance with our counting and developed the abacus, and accounting so created the tally.

In the Congo in 1960 one of the earliest tally devices was discovered.  Dating from 20,000 BCE, it was the Ishango bone. 

Ishango bones

Etchings had been made on a baboon’s fibula, probably using quartz, to record the passing of time some surmise a six-month lunar calendar.

It was in medieval times when merchants needed double accounting to record debts that the split tally came into use.  Marks were made around a stick which was subsequently split down its length so both lender and debtor could retain a clear record of the transaction. These were also much in use as proof of tax payment.

The UK’s exchequer used split tally sticks for tax collections right up until 1826 before they were legally abolished. 

Charles Grey PM

In 1834 the British prime minister Charles Grey, aka Earl Grey of bergamot-flavoured tea, decided to ceremonially burn the old tally sticks and rather unwisely chose to use a stove in the House of Lords for the purpose.  I can find no reference to the number of stères involved?

Charles Dickens talked of ‘counting devices destroying the halls of government’.  He described the event and its cost in some detail.  ‘ … there was a considerable accumulation of them [tally sticks].  … What was to be done with such worn-out worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood?  The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighbourhood. However [the sticks were no longer] useful and official routine required that they never should be, and so the order went out that they should be privately and confidentially burned.  It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords.  The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses [of parliament] were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof.’

1835 JMW Turner produced a famous painting of the houses well alight ‘The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons’.  It is today on show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

JMW Turner’s painting

This tally stick fire burned down all of the Houses of Parliament, apart from the Westminster Hall.  It did significantly more damage than Guy Fawkes might ever have achieved and much more than the later WWII incendiary bomb attacks on the Houses.

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