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When Did That Happen?

The Adding Machine

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  The road to entrepreneurial success has many potholes.  

On October 11, 1887 US Patent 371,496 was awarded for an invention whose prototype was built from a macaroni box, string, and some rubber bands. Dorr Eugene Felt, the inventor, called it a Comptometer but we would know it better as an adding machine.

Dorr Felt grew up in Wisconsin where at the age of 14 he went to work in a machine shop in Beloit. He was a mechanical whiz and by the time he was 20 he had moved on to Chicago. After trying his hand at sales, he found a job working with machines for Ostrander and Huke. In 1884, using a wooden macaroni box, meat skewers, rubber bands, and string, he built a machine that he called a Comptometer. Felt interested a local machine shop owner, Robert Tarrant, who financed his endeavors with an initial investment of $5,000. In November 1887, a month after Felt received his patent, the two entered into a partnership which matured a year later into the Felt and Tarrant Manufacturing Company. It was Felt and Tarrant who built and sold the world’s first mechanical adding machine.

Success—and Competition

When the U.S. Treasury bought four Comptometers, others took notice. Among them was one William S. Burroughs who was inspired to design a machine that not only added but also recorded or, as he put it, “listed,” the result of the calculation. Where the Comptometer’s result had to be read from a set of dials and then written on paper, Burrough’s machine had a printout.

The difference in the two machines mirrored the difference in the two men. Burroughs was a bank clerk in New York who became a machine designer only after seeing the need for an adding machine. Once his machine was designed, patented, and successful, he sold out to the American Arithmometer Company. It was only after Burrough’s death in 1898 that the company was renamed Burroughs.

The two machines battled it out during the 1890’s but by the turn of the century it was clear that the Burroughs adding machine was the winner. In 1902, Felt gave up trying to design a “lister” for his Comptometer.

The Burroughs Company sold the one millionth adding machine in 1926 and continued their manufacture until the age of transistors.

But, of course, that’s not the end of the story. In 1951, Burroughs began the development of its own electronic accounting machines and started to move toward computers. In 1953, seeing the handwriting on the wall, the company changed its name from the Burroughs Adding Machine Company to the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs did build and market mainframe computers during the 1950s and 1960s but neither they nor anyone else could compete with IBM. In fact, in 1982 Burroughs built the B20 personal computer with similar lack of success. Four years later the end came when Burroughs and Sperry merged to form Unisys, a company that continues to this day.

Winners and Losers

The story of the two adding machines is one that we’ve seen repeated as we’ve toured the history of technology. Namely, the best machine doesn’t always win but the best design often does. Users will not long support something that doesn’t mesh with the way that they perform their tasks.

Similarly, the story of the Burroughs Corporation has a familiar ring. The company struggles, succeeds, prospers, falls behind, and, ultimately, succumbs to the next wave of technology.

But, then, that’s why we study history.

It began over 120 years ago with macaroni and inspiration—and that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites. He is currently hard at work on a book on the history of data processing.

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