James White

Acknowledgement to my correspondent Mr. Denis Roegel, Professor at Loria, France, for his unveiling work on White’s adding machine.
Georgi Dalakov

In 1822, James White, an English civil engineer, and prolific inventor published a very interesting 394-page book with the long name A New Century of Inventions: Being Designs and Descriptions of One Hundred Machines, Relating to Arts, Manufactures, and Domestic Life. Remarkably, among the 100 machines, described by White, there is a unique adding machine, which is the first key-driven calculator in the world.

In the early 1820s, late in his life (in the preface White mentions his declining health and approaching mortality), he decided to publish most of (or at least the 100 implied in the title) his inventions. It was obviously a work of some importance, indicated by the names of eminent engineers, who subscribed to it, like Charles Babbage (the creator of Differential Engine and Analytical Engine, Bryan Donkin, Jacob Perkins, William Fairbairn, and others. The same year the book ran to a second edition, and even in our time it also has several reprints on paper and an Ebook version.

We don’t know when exactly White devised his amazing keyboard adder, but in any event, it was long before the next known at the moment keyboard calculators of Luigi Torchi (1834) and Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué (1844). Most probably White invented the machine while in France in the early 1800s (he lived in Paris from the end of 1792 until February 1815), where he had the opportunity to study the machines of some famous French inventors, kept in Paris museums (e.g. Musée des Arts et Métiers), like Pascaline of Blaise Pascal, automata of Jacques de Vaucanson, etc. Sure enough, Vaucanson was mentioned twice in the book, regarding his chaîne Vaucanson, which White planned to use in the endless geering chain of his calculator.

The title page of New Century of Inventions of James White
The title page of New Century of Inventions of James White, Manchester 1822

Obviously, James White was related to and greatly influenced by the prominent British statesman and scientist Charles Stanhope, who had a family seat in Chevening, Kent, where White lived in the early 1790s. Charles Mahon, 3rd Earl Stanhope, is the subject of another article in this humble site, describing his mechanical calculating devices and logic machine. James White mentioned Stanhope three times in his book, as my noble friend, and my noble Patron. In the description of the adding machine, there is a paragraph, referring to Stanhope:
I would just repeat, that I have not attempted here an arithmetical machine in general; but a Machine fit for the daily operations of the counting-house: by which to favour the thinking faculty, by easing it of this ungrateful and uncertain labour. Had I been thus minded, I could have gone further, in a road which has been already travelled by my noble friend the late Earl Stanhope, (then Lord Mahon) but I took a lower aim; intending in the words of Bacon—”to come home to men’s business and bosoms.”

The adding machine of White is a single-column adder (i.e. it was intended to add a single digit at a time, as the unit column is entered first, then the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, and so on, certainly a rather cumbersome task (as every partial sum had to be recorded on paper and the sum eventually performed), which greatly limits the usefulness of such devices.) with very interesting construction, which cannot be found in the later machines. The motion from keys to the calculating mechanism and result dial is transferred by means of a pulley, that presses on an endless gearing chain. The chain is pushed out of its regular circular path by the depression of a key. This action causes the result wheel to turn an amount equal to the length of the key being pushed (the “1” key being 1 unit long, the “2” key, 2 units, etc).

The principle of carrying is shown in Figure 3 (see the image of the first plate below). One wheel carries a pin that, when rotated, advances another wheel by one tooth. The position of the moving wheel is secured by the spring wafer ED.

This construction of the machine makes it possible to type in several digits at the same time. However, there is no way to ensure that the keys are pressed to the bottom, which is something that some later machines will be able to enforce, for instance, by adding the digits only upon the release of a key but not upon its pressing.

A very interesting detail of White’s calculator is a kind of “floating point” mechanism, in that the motion of wheel B (see figure 1 below) rotates the square shaft B G, on which lies a sliding wheel l. This wheel can be moved to the appropriate position, should we add units, tens, hundreds, and so on, or other units (e.g. monetary, like farthings, pence, shillings, and pounds), such as those in use at the time of White.

As White did not patent his adding machine, and no account from his contemporaries survived for this remarkable contrivance, we can assume that the device does not appear to have been anything except a paper design and even a working prototype has not been made.

Let’s see White’s detailed description and illustrations of his adding machine (an excerpt of his book, pages 343–348, and plates 42 and 43):

Or Machine to Cast up large Columns of Figures.

This Machine is not, generally, an arithmetical Machine. It points lower: and therefore promises more general utility. Though less comprehensive than machines which perform all the rules of arithmetic, it is thought capable of taking a prominent place in the counting-house, and there of effecting two useful purposes—to secure correctness; and thus, in many cases, to banish contention. It is represented in figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4 of Plate 42, and in figs. 3 and 4 of Plate 43.

There are two distinct classes of operations that may be noticed in this Machine: the one that does the addition, properly speaking; and the other that records it by figures, in the very terms of common arithmetic. The first operation is the adding: which is performed by means of an endless gearing chain, stretched round the wheels A B C D, (fig. 1) and over the two rows of smaller pulleys a b c d e f g h i; where, observe, that the chain is bent round the pulley A, merely to shorten the Machine, as otherwise the keys 1 2 3, &c. to 9, might have been placed in a straight line, and thus the bending of the chain have been avoided.

The chain, as before observed, geers in the wheels B and D, which both have ratchets to make them turn one way only. Now, the keys 1 2, &c. have pulleys at their lower ends, which press on the aforesaid chain more or less according to the number it is to produce, and the depth to which it is suffered to go by the bed on which the keys rest, when pressed down with the fingers. Thus, if the key 1 be pressed, as low as it can go, it will bend the chain enough to draw the wheel B round one tooth—which the catch E will secure, and which the wheel C will permit it to do by the spring F giving way. But when the key 1 is suffered to rise again, this spring F will tighten the chain by drawing it round the pulleys A and D, thus giving it a circulating motion, more or less rapid, according to the number of the key pressed. Thus, the key 5 would carry five teeth of the wheel B to the left; and the catch E would fix the wheel B in this new position: after which the spring T would tighten the chain in the same direction and manner as before. It is thus evident, that which-ever key is pressed down, a given number of teeth in the wheel B, will be taken and secured by the catch E; and, afterwards, the chain be again stretched by the spring F. It may be remarked, that, in the figure, all the keys are supposed pressed down: so as to turn the wheel B, a number of teeth equal to the sum of the digits 1, 2, 3—to 9. But this is merely supposed to shew the increasing deflexion of the chain, as the digits increase: for the fact can hardly ever occur. We draw from it, however, one piece of knowledge—which is, that should the eye, in computing, catch several numbers at once on the page, the fingers may impress them at once on the keys and chain; when the result will be the same as though performed in due succession.

Plate 42 of White's New Century of Inventions
Plate 42 of White’s New Century of Inventions

Thus then, the process of adding, is reduced to that of touching (and pressing as low as possible) a series of keys, which are marked with the names of the several digits, and each of which is sure to affect the result according to it’s real value: And this seems all that need be observed in the description of this process. It remains, however, to describe the 5th. figure, which is an elevation of the edge of the keyboard, intended to shew the manner in which the two rows of keys are combined and brought to a convenient distance, for the purpose of being easily fingered.

We now come to the other part of the subject—that of recording the several effects before-mentioned. The principle feature in this part, is the System of carrying, or transferring to a new place of figures, the results obtained at any given one. This operation depends on the effect we can produce by one wheel on another, placed near it, on the same pin; and on the possibility of affecting the second, much less than the first is affected: Thus, in fig. 3 and 4, (Plate 42,) if A be any tooth of one such wheel, placed out of the plane of the pinion B, it will, in turning, produce no effect upon that pinion: but if we drive a pin (a) into the tooth A, that pin will move the pinion B one tooth (and no more) every time this pin passes from a to b. And if we now place a second wheel (F) similar to A, at a small distance from it, so as to geer in all the teeth of the pinion B, this latter wheel will be turned a space equal to one tooth, every time the pin a passes the line of the centres of the wheel and pinion A B, (say from a to b.) It may be added, likewise, that this motion, of one tooth, is assured by the instrument shewn at E D, which is called in French a tout ou rien, (signifying all or nothing) and which, as soon as the given motion is half performed, is sure to effect the rest: and thus does this part of the process acquire, likewise, a great degree of certainty—if indeed, certainty admits of comparison.

It is then, easy to perceive, how this effect on the different places of figures is produced; and it is clear, that with the chain motion just described, it forms the basis of the whole Machine. There is, however, one other process to be mentioned, and as the 2nd. figure is before us, we shall now advert to it. In adding up large sums, we have sometimes to work on the tens, sometimes on the hundreds; which mutations are thus performed: The wheel B, (fig. 2) is the same as that B, fig. 1; and it turns the square shaft B G, on which the wheels k l slide. The wheel l is to our present purpose. It is now opposite the place of shillings; but by the slide m, it can be successively placed opposite pounds, tens, hundreds, &c. at pleasure: on either of which columns, therefore, we can operate by the chain first described—the wheel B being the common mover.

Plate 43 of White's New Century of Inventions
Plate 43 of White’s New Century of Inventions

We shall now turn to figs. 3 and 4 of Plate 43, which give another representation of the carrying-mechanism, adapted especially to the anomalous carriages of 4, 12, and 20, in reference to farthings, pence, shillings, and pounds, and then following the decuple ratio.

In fig. 3, k l represent the two acting wheels of the shaft B G, fig. 2; the latter dotted, as being placed behind the former; these wheels, however, are not our present object, but rather the carrying system before alluded to; and described separately, in fig. 3 of Plate 42. A, in figures 3 and 4 (of Plate 43) is the first wheel of this series. It has 12 teeth with three carriage-pins (or plates) a, which jog the carrying pinion B, at every passage of 4 teeth; thus shewing every penny that is accumulated by the farthings. This is so, because the farthings are marked on the teeth of this first wheel in this order-1, 2, 3, 0; 1, 2, 3, &c. and it is in passing from 3 to 0, that this wheel, by the carriage-pinion B, jogs forward the pence wheel C one tooth: But this pence wheel is divided into 12 numbers, from 0 to 11; and has on it only one carrying-pin (or plate) b; so that, here, there is no effect produced on the third wheel D, until 12 pence have been brought to this second wheel C, by the first, or farthing wheel A. Now, this third wheel D, is marked, on it’s twenty teeth, with the figures 0 to 19, and makes, therefore, one revolution, then only, when there have been twenty shillings impressed upon it by twenty jogs of the carriage-pin b, in the second wheel C. But when this wheel D has made one whole revolution, it’s single carriage-pin c, acting on the small carriage-pinion, like that c d, (but not shewn) jogs forward, by one tooth, the wheel E, which expresses pounds; and having two carriage-pins e f, turns the wheel called tens of pounds, one tooth for every half turn of this wheel E: and as, on all the succeeding wheels, to the left from E–(see fig. 2, Plate 42) there are two sets of digits up to 10, and two carriage-pins; the decuple ratio now continues without any change: and thus can we cast up sums consisting of pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings, expressing the results, in a row of figures, exactly as they would be written by an accountant. The opening, through which they would appear, being shewn in fig. 1, at the point w, corresponding with the line x y of fig. 2 in the same Plate.

I shall only remark, further, that the figures 3 and 4 in Plate 43, are of the natural size, founded, indeed, on the use of a chain that I think too large; being, in a word, the real chain de Vaucanson, mentioned in a former article: and that the figures of Plate 42 are made to half these dimensions, in order to bring them into a convenient compass on the Plate.

I would just repeat, that I have not attempted here an arithmetical machine in general; but a Machine fit for the daily operations of the counting-house: by which to favour the thinking faculty, by easing it of this ungrateful and uncertain labour. Had I been thus minded, I could have gone further, in a road which has been already travelled by my noble friend the late Earl Stanhope, (then Lord Mahon) but I took a lower aim; intending in the words of Bacon—”to come home to men’s business and bosoms.”

End of excerpt from book A New Century of Inventions of James White

Biography of James White

Most of the scarce information, available for the life of James White, comes from biographical statements in his only book A New Century of Inventions.

James White was born in 1762 in Cirencester, Gloucestershire (located some 150 km northwest of London), at that time a thriving market town, at the center of a network of turnpike roads with easy access to markets for its produce of grain and wool. Interestingly, no record of his birth is to be found in the Church Baptismal Register there, so his parents may have been nonconformists (or even (judging by his too-common English name and surname, and lack of information about his parents) that he was born out of wedlock son of a nobleman, who wanted to remain in secret).

White’s father gave free rein to his son’s early predilection for mechanics as is illustrated by the fact that when the boy was only about eight years of age and still at school he invented quite an ingenious mouse trap. As James White stated:
Should any reader then enquire what were my first avocations? The answer would be, I was (in imagination) a Millwright, whose Water-wheels were composed of Matches. Or a Woodman, converting my chairs into Faggots, and presenting them exultingly to my Parents: (who doubtless caressed the workman more cordially than they approved the work.) Or I was a Stone-digger, presuming to direct my friend the Quarry-man, where to bore his Rocks for blasting. Or a Coach-maker, building Phaetons with veneer stripped from the furniture, and hanging them on springs of Whalebone, borrowed from the hoops of my Grandmother. At another time, I was a Ship Builder, constructing Boats, the sails of which were set to a side-wind by the vane at the mast head; so as to impel the vessel in a given direction, across a given Puddle, without a steersman. In fine, I was a Joiner, making, with one tool, a plane of most diminutive size, the [relative] perfection of which obtained me from my Father’s Carpenter a profusion of tools, and dubbed me an artist, wherever his influence extended. By means like these, I became a tolerable workman in all the mechanical branches, long before the age at which boys are apprenticed to any: not knowing till afterwards, that my good and provident Parent had engaged all his tradesmen to let me work at their respective trades, whenever the more regular engagements of school permitted.
Before I open the list of my intended descriptions, I would crave permission to exhibit two more of the productions of my earliest thought—namely, an Instrument for taking Rats, and a Mouse Trap: subjects with which, fifty years ago, I was vastly taken; but for the appearance of which, here, I would apologize in form, did I not hope the considerations above adduced would justify this short digression. If more apology were needful… Emerson himself describes a Rat-trap: and moreover, defies criticism, in a strain I should be sorry to imitate: my chief desire being to instruct at all events, and to please if I can: without, however, daring to attempt the elegant PROBLEM, stated and resolved in the same words—”Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuitutile dulci.”

We know nothing of White’s education, but he obviously was apprenticed to several trades, because he mentioned: my good and provident Parent had engaged all his tradesmen to let me work at their respective trades.

White says that he brought out one of the first inventions he carried into real practice on coming to manhood about 1782, at the request of the late Doctor Bliss, of Paddington. It was a perpetual wedge machine (first constructed as a crane, see the lower drawing from the book). This was a concentric wheel and axle, the wheel having 100 teeth and the axle one tooth less, thus obtaining a great advantage.

James White's crane from 1782
James White’s crane from 1782

In 1788, giving his address at Holborn London, White took out a British patent No. 1650, for a number of mechanical devices, not all original, e.g. the Chinese windlass is one of them.

In 1792 White modified the inclined disc treadmill-driven crane for wharfs (see the image below) by refinement of having compartments situated on the disc at a leverage proportional to the weight to be lifted. He submitted a model of the crane to the Society of Arts and was rewarded with a premium of 40 guineas or a gold medal.

White's treadmill-driven crane for wharfs from 1792
White’s treadmill-driven crane for wharfs from 1792

At the end of 1792, White departed to Paris, France, where he remained for more than 20 years, making many inventions and starting several business affairs, most of them not very successful.

The first “French” invention of White was a micrometer, based on differential movement. In 1795 White got another patent, this time for a Serpentine boat, i.e. a string of barges, articulated together to reduce traction and for use in restricted waterways, such as canals. In December 1795 White made an association with the Parisian carpenter Jean-Baptiste Decoeur, and the next year they bought a mill at Charenton. Then White invented a “machine à l’instar des lieux à l’anglaise”, patented in 1797.

In 1801 we found James White living at rue de Popincourt, 47, Paris, and working in association with the immigrant Austrian entrepreneur Simon-Thaddée Pobecheim, who established a small cotton mill in the attic of the church Notre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux. White earned 5% of the profits of the company in exchange for “his talents, processes, and industry in mechanics”. In 1803 White and Pobecheim decided to transfer the company to a former grain mill in Baulne, near Ferté-Alais. In 1804, they took a fifteen-year patent for a “un système préparatoire des matières filamenteuses”, which they perfected several times later, and continued their teamwork until 1807.

At the second Exposition des produits de l’industrie française in 1801, White demonstrated his hypo-cycloidal mechanism, based on the property formulated by the French scientist Philippe de La Hire in 1666, that a point on the circumference of a wheel rolling inside one twice its diameter will describe a straight line. This invention was awarded a renumerating medal by Napoleon Bonaparte. At the same exposition, White presented also a dynamometre.

In the early 1800s, White invented and in 1808 patented single and double helical spur gearing, perhaps the invention on which he seems to have placed most store. He invented also a horizontal water wheel, which was in effect a radial outward-flow turbine.

Another patent, that White took during his stay in France (in 1811) is seemingly of great importance—for the automatic nail-making machine. This was the first machine for making nails from wire, and later considerable manufacture sprang up in France. White has also been credited as being the first to bring out, in 1811, shears for cutting sheet iron in a circular shape.

Hotel Bretonvilliers, Ile de St. Louis, Paris, in 1757
Hotel Bretonvilliers, Ile de St. Louis, Paris, in 1757

After breaking his agreement with Pobecheim in 1807, White moved to rue Saint-Sébastien in Paris, and from 1809 he lived in hotel Bretonvilliers, Ile de St. Louis (still existing, see the nearby painting from 1757), and was engaged in spinning wool mechanics, velvet weaving and nail making.

James White returned to England in February 1815, probably because of the termination of the war by the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. He settled in Manchester presumably because it was one of the foremost world centers of mechanical engineering, and in December 1815, he presented to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society the paper On a new system of cog or toothed wheels.

White wrote that “…in 1817 I was employed by Matthew Corbett, one of the proprietors of a factory at the Pin Mill, Ancoats, to erect a number of my wheels,” but owing to the defective lining of the shafting due to overloaded floors, the gears got out of mesh and was scraped out. Later White devised a milling machine to cut the gears by milling cutters.

In 1820 White obtained a British patent No. 4485 for preparation and spinning of textiles.

James White died on 17 December 1825, aged 63, at his home in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester. He was described in his obituary notice as a Civil engineer and author of the New Century of Inventions.