Jabez Burns

Imagine what silence there would be in the world if people spoke only what they know.
Karel Čapek

Jabez Burns (1826-1888)
Jabez Burns (1826-1888)

At the end of 1850s Jabez Burns (1826-1888), a bookkeeper and peddler from New York, desperately needed a tool to facilitate the lengthy calculations, performed on daily basis. That’s why he invented a simple adding device, for which on 24 August 1858, he took out the US patent №21243 for a machine for adding numbers or addometer.

The adding machine of Jabez Burns obviously never went into production, and only the patent model survived to the present time, property of Smithsonian National Museum (see the image below).

The described in the patent application adding machine of Jabez Burns is a small 4/5 positional device (4 digits in input, and 5 digits in output mechanism), but the inventor mentioned that the system of register wheels and gearing may be continued indefinitely.

The patent model was made by wood, tin, brass, and paper, and has measurements: 16 cm x 38.7 cm x 12.2 cm.

Let’s examine briefly the adding device of Jabez Burns, using the patent drawing (see the image below).

The patent drawing of Burns' addometer
The patent drawing of Jabez Burns’ addometer

The addometer is a simple lever-set adding machine with wooden sides and metal covers for the back and the lower front (see the lower photo). The four large toothed wheels (visible on the front side), are used for setting numbers, with five registering wheels in front and below these. Between each of the large wheels there is an inscribed strip of metal, with the digits from 0 to 9 indicated along the edges of these strips. Each of the four right registering wheels, divided into ten parts, is attached to a spur wheel with ten teeth that meshes with a large toothed wheel.

Placing a finger in one of the teeth of a large wheel and rotating it forward advances the registering wheel proportionally. The number entered is visible in a row of windows at the front of the model. The four registering wheels to the left have on their left side a ring of ten equidistant pins that are used in carrying.

The patent model of Burns' addometer (© Smithsonian National Museum)
The patent model of Burns’ addometer (© Smithsonian National Museum)

The addometer of Burns is a device with limited practical usefulness, but can be seen as a predecessor of later adding devices and cash resisters like these of Joseph Alexander ans Melvin Lovell.

Biography of Jabez Burns

Jabez Burns was born in London on 12 February 1826, as second child in the family of William Gibson Burns (6 Feb. 1801-9 Dec. 1879), and Elizabeth Horrock (or Herricks) (1786-1861). Jabez had two sisters—Elizabeth (1816-1885), and Mary (McPherson) (1822-1910). Jabez was named after his uncle—Jabez Burns (1805–1876), who became a famous English nonconformist divine and Christian philosophical writer.

William Gibson Burns was son of the basket maker and vendor of worm medicine Joseph Burns and his devout Wesleyan wife Mary. He was fairly well educated for that time and place and an ardent Chartist, who worked as a basket maker, just like his father. It appears that a similar education was most likely given to young Jabez because during his first winter in USA he taught in a country school.

In 1829 the family moved from London to Dundee, Scotland. Nothing is known about Jabez until the summer of 1844, when he arrived to New York with his mother, to seek his fortune.

The first winter in America found youthful Jabez teaching a country school at Summit, New Jersey. Then in 1845 he began in New York as teamster for Henry Blair, a prosperous coffee merchant. Blair introduced Jabez to the church and the attending Scots community where Burns met Agnes Brown (1824-1904), a young Scots girl, a daughter of a Paisley (Scotland) weaver. The couple married in 1847 and in 1849 was born their first child, William. The family will have seven sons, William Gibson (1849-1886), James (1850-1857), Jabez (1852-1908), Joseph (1854-1898), Robert (1857-1929), Abraham Lincoln (1866-1941), George Washington (1868-1877), and one daughter, Agnes (1858-1928).

Jabez had continued regularly in the employ of coffee and spice firms, selling their products door-to-door, and at one time he was bookkeeper and peddler for Thomas Reid’s Globe Mills. It seems during this period in the middle 1850s he devised his calculating device, in order to facilitate the lengthy calculations. Jabez advanced slowly, because he lacked real trading talent; but he was learning all about the handling of goods, from purchase to final delivery; and when he quit bookkeeping for Globe Mills, and began to build his patented coffee roaster, he could advise clients reliably about every factory detail.

Thus in 1850s and 1860s Jabez had risen from a cart-man, to a peddler, bookkeeper, gifted inventor, to founding a company that has been referred to as the “unique coffee-machinery workshop, the greatest of its kind in the United States.” In 1864, Jabez Burns founded his trademark company, Jabez Burns & Sons, and began to manufacture the improved coffee roaster which he invented. The company became quite successful and existed up to 1964, when was bought out by a much larger firm, but (amazingly) the brand is still used in our time (see: jabezburns.com).

Although the Burns family seemed to be hard workers, they exhibited a strong sense of family and apparently enjoyed playing music together (see the lower photo).

Burns Brass Band of Jabez Burns (sitting in the center of front row) and his sons, circa 1880
Burns Brass Band of Jabez Burns (sitting in the center of front row) and his sons, circa 1880, Brooklyn, New York

Besides the above-mentioned patent for an adding machine from 1858, Jabez Burns was a holder of many other patents, mainly for coffee equipment. e.g. US Patent Nrs. 44704, 115431, 241295, 241296, 147370, and others, but also for a water-closets (№149195 and №156978), windows shade fixture (№94866), etc. All his life he was reportedly always working on some kind of invention.

Jabez Burns’ life was a true rags to riches story. He died on 16 September 1888, in New York.