Charles Webb

We understand everything; that is why we understand nothing.
Stanisław Jerzy Lec

Charles Henry Webb in 1877
Charles Henry Webb in 1877

The American poet, author, and journalist Charles Henry Webb (1834–1905) from New York was a holder of several patents for calculating devices. First was the USA patent №75322 from 10 March 1868, for an adding-machine. Later (in November 1889) he took out two other patents for an improved version of the same device, pat. №414335 (granted to his assignor L. Smith), and pat. №414959.

Charles Webb was a holder of two other patents for a different adding machine, the so-called Ribbon Adder. The second machine Webb devised in 1886 when applied for USA and English patents, but he had some problems with the application, and was granted a patent for this device first in England in 1888, then in the USA (pat. №465120 from 1891).

Both calculating devices of Webb gained some popularity and had been manufactured and sold, although with moderate market success, so they deserve our attention. Let’s examine them:

Webb’s First Adding Machine
The first adding machine of Webb (it was bombastically advertised as ONLY PRACTICAL ADDING MACHINE IN THE WORLD:-), patented in 1868 in the USA (patent №75322), and also in France (brevet N°86774 from 1869), was advertised intensely and was manufactured with moderate market success in 1869-70 from his company Webb Adding Machine Co., New York. Later (in the 1890s) the improved version of the device (see the photo below), was manufactured by another Webb’s company—Webb’s Adder Co., New York.

Webb's adder, an example from 1891
First Webb’s adding machine, an example from 1891

The Webb’s Adder was offered for sale in 1869 advertisements at $6.00 (brass), $8.00 (with steel cam and stop) or $10.00 (steel plated throughout), the 1890-92 price was $7 (it was not a cheap device for the time, because $6-7 would have been one or two weeks’ wages for many people then.)

One of the interesting features of Webb’s Adder is the stored-energy carry. The simpler adders use straightforward gearing to make the carry operation—each gear has a single tooth that engages the next gear up when it completes a full revolution. The problem with this is that it takes some force to drive the gear train, especially when adding 1 to a number like 9999, since the stylus has to rotate all the gears at once. The first inventor to solve this problem was Blaise Pascal , who devised a sequential carry mechanism, where each gear passed the carry under its own power. Webb’s adder has only one carry transfer position, but it uses a similar idea. In his implementation of stored-energy carry the energy to move the higher wheel is accumulated gradually during the entire turn of the lower wheel, by slowly compressing a spring. At the moment of the carry (when the big dial goes from 99 to 0) the spring is released and its force increments the small dial. This force still derives from the operator’s fingers, but it has been fed in gradually and is barely felt, thus the carry seems to happen by itself.

Let’s see the description of the device from the advertisement in the journal Scientific American from 27 February 1869:
We have an innate and hereditary hatred of all of the order ophidian, and we much doubted the expediency of receiving Mr. Webb’s reptile into our office, but having seen the animal and found it was no ‘snake’ whose head was to be crushed, but an industrious little device calculated to save head-wear, we welcomed it cordially. Its appearance is similar to the accompanying engraving (see the nearby image), the implement, however, being larger, measuring about six and three-quarter inches long by about five inches across the widest place. The form is seen in the engraving. A large disk, A, and a small one, B, both revolving, and both graduated around the circumference and marked with figures in two concentric circles, are seated in a case and and partially covered with a metallic plate, leaving only the inner circle of figures exposed, except at a small opening between the two disks, where one set of figures, on the outer circle of each, is seen through the slot in the plate. The plate around the larger disk is marked from 0 to 99 the correspond with similar numbers on the disk’s concentric circles. The smaller disk has 50 numbers, from 0 to 50, with a corresponding segment of numbers (units) from 0 to 9 ranging from the opening in the plate or cover back around a portion of the smaller circle. The larger disk has on its under side a ratchet with a single tooth and the smaller one a ratchet of fifty teeth. A connection is made between the two by a spring pawl so that one entire revolution of the large disk will move the small one one-fiftieth of its circumference. The operation may be comprehended by the above description of the parts. The Inventor believes that it is a great aid to accountants, substituting a merely mechanical process for mental or brain labor. Certainly if his manipulation of the device, and the opinions of these who have given it a trial are to be considered, the implement should be estimated as a valuable adjunct to the means of summing up wearisome columns of figures. It may be let in flush with the surface of a desk so that the accountant, or clerk, may always have it at his elbow, working it with one hand while keeping his place in the columns of figures with the other. It is neat, handy, and presentable, but although it will add numbers rapidly, it is doubtful if it will add to a man’s fortune or to his family. With this drawback we can indorse the adder. Orders for the implement or for explanatory circulars should be addressed to the patentee, C. H. Webb, 571 Broadway, New York city.

Webb’s Ribbon Adder
The second calculating device of Webb was the so-called Ribbon Adder.

Webb's Ribbon Adder, from a 1893 article
Webb’s Ribbon Adder, from an 1893 article

Several people experimented with versions of simple mechanical calculators, that involved strips of metal with numbers marked on them mounted in a frame, where a pen (stylus) was used to slide these strips up and down. A few names that usually rise to the top of the pile in this regard are Claude Perrault, who invented the first form of this class of devices sometime around 1670, and César Caze, who created his version—nouvelle machine arithmétique at the beginning of 1700s. Then around 1874 the Russian Юрiй И. Дьяковъ (Juri I. Diakov), in his new type of abacus (новаго рода счеты), suggested that one might represent numbers on an adder by a set of continuous bands.

Charles Webb picked up the idea of Diakov and devised his quite clever device in the middle of the 1880s. He applied for a patent in the USA in 1886, received one in England in 1888, and patented his ribbon adder in America in 1891 (see pat. №465120).

Webb however had some problems with the patent of this device. When he overcame the delays associated with patent problems and obtained the patent, the depression of 1893 proved more than he could handle. Webb’s Ribbon Adder didn’t reach the market success of the first adder and soon disappeared from the market. However, its principle was later successfully implemented in devices like Bassett Adder, which was in production from 1909 till the end of the 1930s.

Webb's Ribbon Adder (© National Museum of American History)
Webb’s Ribbon Adder (© National Museum of American History)

This chrome-encased instrument (see the nearby photo), with overall dimensions: 5.3 cm x 14.3 cm x 15.5 cm, has eight grooves for entering the digits of numbers with a stylus. The grooves are labeled 1-to-20 on the housing, giving a user the curious “convenience” of being able to add up to 20 in a single stroke. Inside, beneath the grooves, are long metal ribbons with regularly spaced holes. The holes are numbered to their right with the digits from 0 to 9 repeating sequentially all along the ribbon. These digits appear in windows below the grooves as amounts are entered. The same holes are also numbered to their left, with a total of 10 holes numbered 0, ten 1’s, ten 2’s, and so forth up to ten holes numbered on the left 29. These figures appear in windows at the top of the grooves and represent numbers to be carried. To enter a number, one pulls down the ribbons for its digits. The corresponding total appears in windows below the grooves. Digits appearing in the windows at the top must be carried into the adjacent left column. Any one strip of this adder can be used to add sums totaling 299, or to enter a 9 and carry 29.

Biography of Charles Webb

Charles Henry Webb (1834-1905)
Charles Henry Webb (1834-1905)

Charles Henry Webb was born at Rouse’s Point, a village in Clinton County, northern New York state (near the Canadian border), on 24 January 1834. He was the son of Nathan Webb III (1790–1863), and Philena King (Paddock) Webb (2 July 1801–5 Apr. 1890) from Barre, Vermont. Nathan and Philena Webb married in 1827 and had (at least) five sons: Nathan F. (succeeded his father as a merchant), Charles Henry (1834-1905, our hero), Thaddeus Osgood (1836-1837, died aged 11 months of consumption), William Edward (1838-1906, became war correspondent, railroad land baron, town founder, Kansas legislator, adventurer, author, and mining engineer), and Robert Lesslie (1840-).

Nathan Webb III was born on 20 Nov. 1790 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Nathan Webb II (1765-1818), and Mary “Polly” McKnight (1767-1813). Nathan Webb II was a native of Connecticut and representative of an old and honored New England family, which was ably represented in the early wars of the colonies, the French and Indian war, and the war of the American Revolution. Nathan Webb (the father of Charles) was a reputable local citizen, a farmer, merchant, and owner of a general store in Rouse’s Point, who used to serve also as а postmaster, president of the temperance society, and vice-president of the agricultural society. In 1829 and on, a horse boat ferry, owned by Nathan Webb, was run to the Vermont shore—it was a novelty. He died on 18 March 1863, in Wabasha, Minnesota.

Charles Webb received his preliminary education in his native place, but he was an unruly boy and in his early youth, he ran away to sea. He was absent for more than three years, whaling in the South Seas and in the Arctic. On his return Webb went to Illinois, to which state his parents had removed in the meantime. Then he had been engaged in business on the banks of the Mississippi river from 1856 till 1860, dealt subsequently in wheat in Chicago, took part in the American Civil War (where he covered the front lines for the newspaper New York Times), and at a later period was a banker and broker in Wall street, New York.

After starting his career as a journalist in the newspaper New York Times in the beginning of the 1860s, in April 1862, Webb moved to San Francisco, California, and became literary editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, before becoming the highest paid contributor to The Golden Era under pen names like “Inigo” and “John Paul”. While in San Francisco, he was also a notorious womanizer and lived at the Occidental Hotel among the ‘fast set’ of urban bachelors. At the beginning of 1864, he started a paper of his own, named The Californian, a weekly. Webb’s irreverent tone and burlesques of California life and Californians, however, were not successful, so in 1866 he left The Californian and returned to the East Coast.

Charles Henry Webb in 1902
Charles Henry Webb in 1902

Besides the calculating devices, which have been already examined in this article, in 1874 Webb invented, patented, and manufactured a cartridge-loading machine, the utility of which was recognized by the manufacturers of firearms and others.

Webb was a friend of Mark Twain and when Twain had difficulty finding a publisher for his first collection of sketches, Webb offered to take on the project himself. Webb served as both editor and publisher for The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. When it was released under the American News Company imprint in 1867, Twain reported to a newspaper, “[Webb] has gotten it up in excellent style, and has done everything to suit his own taste, which is excellent. I have made no suggestions.”

Webb was known for his humorous social criticism and published several travesties and plays. In 1867, he wrote Liffith Lank, or Lunacy (1867), a parody of Charles Reade’s Griffith Gaunt. In 1868, he wrote St. Twel’mo, or the Cuneiform Cyclopedist of Chattanooga, a parody of the novel St. Elmo by Augusta Evans Wilson which had sold over a million copies within four months of its publication the year before.

Charles Webb married early in the seventies to Elizabeth S. Wall Webb (1844–1908) of Brooklyn, daughter of one of its most prominent and wealthy citizens, and they had one son—Charles Webb Jr. (1875–1937).

Charles Henry Webb died at his home, 328 West 57th Street, New York, on 24 May 1905. He was remembered for his exquisite work described as: “the quality of his verse is high; the wit, which is expressive, is unsurpassed by the work of any of his contemporaries, not forgetting that Oliver Wendell Holmes was among them” (The New York Times, June 4, 1905).