Little Bits of History

Adding Things Up

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 21, 2014
Burroughs adding machine

Burroughs adding machine

August 21, 1888: William Seward Burroughs I receives a patent. He was born in 1857, the son of a mechanic. He worked with machines all his life. His family moved to Auburn, New York and he attended public schools there. After high school, his father insisted his youngest son have a gentleman’s vocation. To that end, William was employed by the Cayuga County National Bank of Auburn. He spent many hours adding numbers. It was at this time that he became interested in creating a machine to add the lists upon lists of numbers. The bank had a number of prototypes of this machine, but they were not reliable since they gave wrong and sometimes even ludicrously wrong answers.

Clerking was not what Burroughs wished to do, but solving the adding machine problem was. His natural talents were mechanical experimentation and creation but he worked at the bank, manually adding numbers for seven years – damaging his health in the process. A doctor advised the ill man to move to a warmer climate and so Burroughs resigned from his hated job and moved to St. Louis, Missouri and got a job at a machine shop. He enjoyed the work and in this milieu was surrounded by materials that could be put to use to create the machine he had desired for seven years. His work was precise, even to making lines using a microscope for accuracy.

He devised a “calculating machine” and received patent number 388,116 on this day. He founded the American Arithmometer Company in 1886 which would become the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in 1904. The name changed to the Burroughs Corporation in 1953 and they merged with Sperry Corporation in 1986 to form Unisys. Burroughs died in 1898 and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His grandson and great-grandson, both also named William Burroughs, were writers of some fame.

Adding machines are a class of mechanical calculators which were developed for use in bookkeeping. The early machines were developed to read in dollars and cents. Early mechanical calculators were developed by Blaise Pascal in 1642 whose machine could add and subtract directly and multiply and divide by repetitions and Wilhelm Schickard whose less functional machine was designed decades earlier. Thomas de Colmar launched the industry in 1851 with a simplified arithmometer over which he worked for thirty years trying to perfect it. The industry did not truly take off until Dorr E. Felt and Burroughs brought differently conceived machines to market. These machines were eventually replaced by electronic calculators in the 1970s.

Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers. – Shakuntala Devi

Mathematics is the most beautiful and most powerful creation of the human spirit. – Stefan Banach

The study of mathematics, like the Nile, begins in minuteness but ends in magnificence. – Charles Caleb Colton

Mathematics is a game played according to certain simple rules with meaningless marks on paper. – David Hilbert

Also on this day: USA = 50 States – In 1959, Hawaii is admitted to the United States of America as the 50th state.
The Prophet – In 1931, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion.
Stolen Smile – In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.
Jarvis Island – In 1821, Jarvis Island was discovered.

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