Helge Palmcrantz

Those who wish to sing, always find a song.
Swedish proverb

Two experimental models of Palmcrantz' calculator
Two experimental models of Palmcrantz’s calculator

In the middle 1860s the young Swedish engineer Carl Helge Julius Palmcrantz (1842-1880), who just finished his studies at the Teknologiska Institutet (Technological Institute of Stockholm) and returned unemployed (there was a recession with a large shortage of work in Sweden) to his parental home in Jämtland, was trying to establish his own business. Thus he decided to design and put into serial production a calculating machine.

Palmcrantz created initially several simpler experimental models (see the nearby images), similar to earlier devices of Blaise Pascal and Samuel Morland. These wooden and metal models were made in the summer of 1865, and had the dimensions: first (upper image) machine: length 260.0 mm, width 150.0 mm, height 35.0 mm, weight is 0.4 kg; second (lower image) machine: length 240.0 mm, width 115.0 mm, height 50.0 mm, weight is 0.6 kg.

In the autumn of 1865, Helge Palmcrantz improved his early designs and devised a better calculator, suitable for addition and multiplication (see the lower image), which he later patented (Swedish patent Nr. 106 from 30 July 1867 for å summerings- och kontrollerings-machiner), and put into serial production, although on a small scale, from 1866 until 1870, as only several devices survived to our time.

The production model of Palmcrantz's calculator
The production model of Palmcrantz’s calculator

The calculating machine of Helge Palmcrantz is somewhat similar to the earlier Manipolatore Aritmetico of Niccola Guinigi. The device has a rotary disc with push buttons, was made of copper alloy (copper, brass, bronze) and wood, and was mounted in a brass frame with a base, in a mahogany box. Dimensions (with the box): length 140.0 mm, width 190.0 mm, height 50.0 mm; the total weight was 1.8 kg (the box is 400 g). The machine seems like a solid and well-designed device, but it is hard to believe it can be used for practical calculations, having only two digits at the result mechanism.

Biography of Helge Palmcrantz

Carl Helge Julius Palmcrantz (1842-1880)
Carl Helge Julius Palmcrantz (1842-1880)

Carl Helge Julius Palmcrantz was born at Hammerdal in Jämtland, Sweden, on 7 July 1842. He was the second child (of eight) of Per Gustaf Palmcrantz (1806–1905), a captain in the Jämtland Ranger Regiment, and Lovisa Ulrika Nordenmark (1818-1893).

Carl Helge grew up in Vigge, a village in Bergs Parish, and studied at the high school in Östersund. Interestingly, in school, he showed himself lazy and was even considered retarded—obvious signs of his creative genius. His mechanical aptitude was expressed early, influenced by his grandpa, Per Nordenmark (1775-1853), the provost of Offerdal, who was a mechanic: at the age of twelve, Helge made a sleigh and later added a wall clock and violins. In 1858, Helge was enlisted as a cadet in his father’s regiment, where he worked doing land surveying for two years, then worked in a mechanical workshop in Stockholm in 1860. In 1861 he obtained a patron for financial support and in September went to study at the Technological Institute of Stockholm (now the Royal Institute of Technology). There he took the initiative for the student newspaper Blandaren, which still exists today.

When Helge graduated in civil engineering in June 1864, he worked as an engineer in Jämtland for a year, trying to establish his own business, and rebuilding the Frösö Bridge in Östersund. Then he began experimenting with new weapon designs. This led to him being employed as a draftsman at a state arms committee in Stockholm from October 1866 to April 1867.

Helge Palmcrantz in front of Niagara falls, 1876
Helge Palmcrantz in front of Niagara falls, 1876

Inspiration came to Palmcrantz during his numerous trips abroad, among other things he visited the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. At the same time, he took the opportunity to study various American industries, which can be seen, in his report printed after his return home. During his time in the USA, Palmcrantz got to meet John Ericsson, the inventor of the propeller, among other things.

Helge Julius Palmcrantz was a versatile inventor. Besides the mechanical calculator, he constructed a bicycle and a mower/harvester. The machine gun he developed made him a fortune. The company that Helge Palmcrantz founded (together with his brother-in-law Theodor Winborg (1832-1918), a chemist and entrepreneur), AB Palmcrantz&Co, became one of the largest Swedish industries of the time. At the factory, among other unusual for the time things, Palmcrantz granted his workers regulated working hours with an eight-hour day, overtime compensation, and some sick pay applied; a vocational school was also established there.

Helge Palmcrantz with a model of his harvester
Helge Palmcrantz enjoying a model of his harvester

Palmcrantz married on 11 August 1874 in Stockholm, to Susanna Josephina Winborg (28 Feb 1838—29 April 1925), a daughter of a quartermaster from Undenäs, Skaraborg, Johan Winborg, and Anna Brita Göthberg, and sister of his friend and partner Theodor Winborg. Susanna was a strong person, who had her own business—a bakery. They had four children: the tween boys Carl Johan (May 1875-Aug 1875), and Nils Gustaf (1875-1961), and daughters Helga Margareta (Jan 1877-Feb 1878), and Susanna Birgitta (1878-1915).

Helge Palmcrantz has been described as “lean, but sinewy”, sharp-minded, imaginative, independent, original, and unconventional but somewhat rough and angular in his manner. He also had an artistic streak, loved violins, and liked to write poetry.

Palmcrantz succumbed to an early death at only 38 years. After dinner at Operakällaren in the middle of November 1880, Palmcrantz suddenly fell ill with a bleeding stomach ulcer and died after a few days, on 22 November 1880, and was buried at Norra Begravningsplatsen cemetery in Stockholm.