You are here:

In the 1610s and 1620s, a new computational technology took hold in England: printed mathematical tables for compound interest and discounting (‘present value’) problems. Historians of finance and accounting have long recognized the arrival of these paper tools, predecessors of ubiquitous modern techniques like ‘discounted cash flow.’ Yet the early history of these tables remains hazy. What did early-seventeenth-century users do with these tables? Who used them? Why did those calculations arise when and where they did? This paper recovers the hidden story behind these tables, with one obscure but influential text—Ambrose Acroyd’s Tables of Leasses and Interest (1628)—as guide. Two key facts emerge. First, despite the prominence of discounting in modern financial applications like insurance and investment analysis, these early discounting calculations were not confined to England’s nascent financial sector. Rather, their foremost use related to agricultural property, specifically in assessing the upfront ‘fines’ tenants were required to pay landlords for initiating or renewing leases on farms. Second, among the leading ‘early adopters’ were institutions of the Church of England. Bishops, cathedrals, and colleges faced a distinct matrix of economic and institutional pressures during the ‘price revolution’ the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sophisticated mathematical tables like Acroyd’s emerged as a technical solution to a long- running conflict between church landlords and agrarian tenants over how to determine just and reasonable fines on church lands. Discounting tables were thus not tools of instrumental rationality evident of a new capitalist mentality, but tools of social accommodation and products of the era’s ‘economy of obligation.’ 

William Deringer is associate professor of Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

All welcome. This event is free, but booking is required. Joining details included in the booking confirmation.