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In a 1508 German book on arithmetic for merchants, this image appears on the cover (high resolution and context here):

enter image description here

What is this depicting? Who are these people and what are their roles? In particular, what are the symbols on the table? What is happening?

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  • $\begingroup$ Two observations: (1) the left person might be doing a multiplication: 12 * 32. (2) below the picture (see high resolution link) there seems to be handwriting with numbers (maybe an explanation?)—I can't decipher the handwriting. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    May 3 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ Behold. $\endgroup$ May 3 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ All three seem to be computing something, two using a big horizontal blackboard, and one with his little portable board. $\endgroup$ May 4 at 21:37

3 Answers 3

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The image appears to depict a counting board. Since the context is mercantilism, it is most likely depicted being used by tax collectors or accountants. The symbols are most likely stylizations.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Wonderful find, @nwr! :) This German Wikipedia entry has a picture of a real-life "Rechentisch": de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rechnen_auf_Linien ; it seems to have been used to convert between different currencies. This matches well with the book, which talks about converting between ducat, gulden, florin, groschen, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    May 3 at 17:59
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The image may depict the new form of doing arithmetic by writing numbers, as opposed to the old style of using the counting board.

Two image attestations around the same time.

  1. A 1503 print of Gregor Reisch's encyclopedia Margarita Philosophica. Under the entry for arithmetice, there's an image contrasting the old and new style of doing arithmetic. Note the banner saying "typus arithmeticæ".

enter image description here

  1. Two 1514 prints by the same publisher Öglin in Augsburg. The first book is about the counting board technique. The second book is about arithmetic by writing numbers.

enter image description here enter image description here

Technology

In terms of technology for the table surface and smaller writing board, I have thus far found no references from the 1500s. Today, we can find slate boards on which we write with chalk or some other form of soft stone.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I think you are correct here. The image which I had included in my post may show both methods, with the gentleman on the left performing the written calculation. You can accept your own answer if you are satisfied with your research. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    May 5 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ @nwr Your answer made it possible for me to do my later research. I'll leave this question open for a bit. I'm still curious who these people are and attestations or guesses for the specific writing technology they use. Maybe they're Italian or Arab merchants—since the books has math problems mentioning Algiers, Constantinople, and Venice; besides Nürnberg and other German cities. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    May 5 at 16:53
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It seems to depicture the page setting of a math book in the new technique developed by Johannes Gutenberg. If you look closely you can see the math letters. The year 1508 was within a gold rush period for printers.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this theory, since it explains the symbols on the table and what looks like a small chalkboard. Do you know if there are any pictures extant of people using this "page setting technique"? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    May 4 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ I doubt this very much. The man on the left seems to hold a piece of chalk for writing in his hand and the man on the right seems to place a "calculus" pebble (or both do the same of either of these actions). After all, isn't it most likely that such a frontispiece depicts the very subject of the book? $\endgroup$ May 4 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Hagen I agree, it would not fit the context of the book. Yet, the image also doesn't quite look like the "Rechentisch" setup that we've seen thus far either. Something seems different here. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    May 4 at 21:51

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