History and Story Behind Inventions: Calculator or Adding Machine

About the story behind the invention of the calculator or adding machine, history and biography of Door Eugene Felt and William Seward Burroughs invention.

INVENTION: Adding Machine

INVENTOR: Door Eugene Felt, U.S.; William Seward Burroughs, U.S.

YEAR: 1887-1888

HOW INVENTED: Until these 2 years, most accountants and clerks did their calculating with pencil and ledger. Said Felt, "I knew many accountants could mentally add 4 columns of figures at a time, so I decided I must beat that in designing my machines." Felt constructed the 1st key-driven adding-machine model. "It was near Thanksgiving Day of 1884, and I decided to use the holiday in construction of the wooden model. I went to the grocer's and selected a [macaroni] box." Using meat skewers for punch keys, staples for key guides, elastic bands for springs, Felt built his model with a jackknife.

He convinced his employer, Robert Tarrant, to back the invention. In 1887, they became partners in selling the Comptometer, for 15 years "the only multiple order key-driven calculator on the market."

While Felt was creating the more accurate machine, Burroughs was inventing the more marketable one. Burroughs, a mechanic's son who became a mechanic himself, applied for a patent for his Adding and Listing Machine in 1885, obtained the patent 3 years later. At the age of 28, he was vice-president of his own American Arithmometer Company, in St. Louis, Mo. In 1899, Burroughs produced 50 adding machines. However, only he and one field salesman could operate them. The salesman, says A Computer Perspective, "operated his so well that he refused to sell it, preferring to haul it from saloon to saloon in a wheelbarrow, betting drinks on its accuracy." Later, when Burroughs invented an automatic device that made his machine readily usable, he went to the storeroom where the original 50 were kept, took them one by one, and heaved them out the window.

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