Burroughs' adding machine Science

Burroughs burrows his way through

An early Burroughs adding machine - a desktop model in use around 1890s.   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Are you afraid of big numbers? The billion billion atoms that were used in the production of darmstadtium for instance. Or even the 150 million km separating earth and the sun. Well, for some of you, even anything over three digits might be big enough. And when you are expected to sum few of these numbers, it is a different ball-game altogether!

Thankfully though, we have methods and instruments to aid us at this. If our arithmetic fails us, we could rely on calculators and computers to perform the operation. But late in the 19th century, the situation was far different.

Born in the mid 1850s, William Seward Burroughs was the son of Edmund Burroughs, a mechanic, and Ellen Julia Burroughs, a homemaker. As a young boy, Burroughs started working with machines while being educated at public schools. And at the age of 16, he fulfilled his father’s desire (that he should join a gentleman’s vocation) by becoming a bank clerk at the Cayuga County National Bank in Auburn, New York.

All about addition

It was here that the seeds for his invention were sown. Burroughs regretted spending long hours poring over ledgers in search of errors and the equally lengthy time he had to dedicate to prevent such errors.

He realised that the bulk of the work done indoors had to do with numerical figures and almost all of his work pertained to addition. He decided that he could solve this problem by creating an adding machine.

His background as a mechanic in his early years helped him along the way. After almost 10 years in the bank, however, his sedentary lifestyle led to his failing health and he was advised to move to warmer climes and a more active occupation.

This prompted his move to Saint Louis, Missouri, where he worked with the Future Great Manufacturing Company. The knowledge that he gained here, in addition to his existing know-how with banks and balance sheets, allowed him to make the first recording adding machine.

The first adding machine

Burroughs burrows his way through
With financial assistance from Thomas B. Metcalfe, Burroughs completed his first machine in 1885, but it proved to be impractical. Along with two others, Burroughs and Metcalfe started the American Arithmometer Company in 1886.

About 50 machines that were an improved version of Burrough’s initial model were manufactured by 1887. But as only Burroughs was able to operate these correctly, they were recalled, to be further enhanced.

On August 21, 1888, Burroughs received patents for his calculating machine. Burroughs invented a corrective automatic device that eased the operation, leading to over 250 units being sold by 1895.

Burroughs, however, died in 1898 due to his chronic health problems, aged just 43. This meant that he wasn’t around to see his invention become a commercial success as the company made its foray into the global economy.

In the years that followed, it grew into the largest adding machine company and went on to include new variations like typewriters, check protectors and ticketeers. The calculating machine that Burroughs invented no longer exists, but his legacy surely lives on.


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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 12:27:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/Burroughs-burrows-his-way-through/article14581927.ece

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