Saturday August 21, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Adding Machine

On this Day:

In 1888, the American inventor William Seward Burroughs patented the adding machine. However, any claims that he invented the adding machine simply, ah, do not add up.

An adding machine is a class of mechanical calculator, usually specialized for bookkeeping calculations. In the United States, the earliest adding machines were usually built to read in dollars and cents. Adding machines were ubiquitous office equipment until they were phased out in favor of calculators in the 1970s and by personal computers beginning in about 1985. The older adding machines were rarely seen in American office settings by the year 2000.

Blaise Pascal and Wilhelm Schickard were the two original inventors of the mechanical calculator in 1642. For Pascal this was an adding machine that could perform additions and subtractions directly and multiplication and divisions by repetitions, whilst Schickard’s machine, invented several decades earlier, was less functionally efficient but was supported by a mechanised form of multiplication tables. These two were followed by a string of inventors and inventions leading to those of Thomas de Colmar who launched the mechanical calculator industry in 1851 when he released his simplified arithmometer (it took him thirty years to refine his machine, patented in 1820, into a simpler and more reliable form). However, they did not gain widespread use until Dorr E. Felt started manufacturing his comptometer (1887) and Burroughs started the commercialization of differently conceived adding machines (1892).

William Seward Burroughs received a patent for his adding machine on August 25, 1888. He was a founder of American Arithmometer Company, which became Burroughs Corporation and evolved to produce electronic billing machines and mainframes, and eventually merged with Sperry to form Unisys. The grandson of the inventor of the adding machine is Beat author William S. Burroughs; a collection of his essays is called The Adding Machine (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Amongst the usual queue of people wearing studded leather, piercings and chains, the S&M club doorman was surprised to see a bespectacled man in a button-down shirt and tie standing patiently in the queue, an adding machine in one hand. “Who are you, are you lost?” asked the doorman.

“Oh, I’m the statistician” came the reply from the fellow.

“Then…what are you here for?”

With a grin, the statistician said: “Just a standard deviation.”

Second, a Song:

What do adding machines, typewriters and women’s equality have to do with each other? According to Answer Archive:

“Hate doing your taxes? So did Blaise Pascal. Have you ever wanted to throw your computer out the window? So did William Bouroughs.  Do you hate when your friends badger you about details on your latest tech purchase? So did Mark Twain. Are you a working girl, rolling in that 9 to 5 office lifestyle? Meet your trailblazing ancestors, the “typewriter girls” of the of the early twentieth century. All of these people and more led to the creation of IBM, the tech giant whose logo is emblazed all over the modern office. In this episode of the Answer Archive, we look at the stories of the people and companies who invented modern data calculation and storage through adding machines and typewriters.” (per

“Answer Archive tells the stories behind the things you never think about.  Every couple weeks I upload a video telling the history of an object or concept that impacts your life on a daily basis, and if I do it well, I’ve made the normal strange to you again.”

Here is Answer Archive’s story of adding machines and typewriters. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“People challenge my nerd cred all the time. I just show them the photo of me winning my middle-school science fair, wearing my Casio calculator watch and eyeglasses so big they look like they can see the future.” – Aisha Tyler

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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