From the FDA Vault: A Calculating History

From the FDA Vault: A Calculating History


Welcome to the FDA’s history vault, containing
more than 10,000 items from FDA’s history. Among the artifacts are tools used by those
who carry out the agency’s mission, which highlights advances in science and technology,
and many of the deceptive and dangerous foods, medicines, and so-called medical products
that FDA has helped remove from commerce and that have led to important changes in laws
and regulations. Today’s episode, a calculating history. FDA’s work requires enormous amounts of
data analysis, which involves high level calculations. When Harvey Wiley came to Washington in 1883
to become the chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture he of course brought with him
a very reputable scientific reputation. He was a chemist by training and he immediately
launched into studies of food, food adulteration and other investigations. There’s probably pretty good chance that in
his early work Harvey Wiley would have used and his analysts would’ve used this device. This is actually a calculating device, the
Thacher calculating instrument. It was patented in 1881and it actually was
a very powerful calculating tool, probably because it was both round and could slide
back and forth it had almost the power of several individual slide rules. So it could do multiplication, division, it
could calculate interest, if you wanted to do that, it could calculate roots and powers
of numbers and it could do that to about five significant figures. It was also accurate to within about .01%
so that’s incredible accuracy at that time. Now this device, of course, was superseded
eventually by, by less bulky calculating devices. Shortly after midcentury handheld calculators
were common and certainly even not too long after that computers became the bull work
of those running analyses. So the way calculations were made has changed
over the years, the complexity of the things that the FDA analyzes has, of course, changed
as the technology has changed but that’s why regulatory science and keeping pace with changes
in commodities that we regulate is so important. The FDA’s collection provides a journey
through American history and documents the critical role played by one of the nation’s
oldest public health agencies in support of its mission to promote and protect American
health. We hope you enjoyed your visit.

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