John Pfeifer

The first adding machine of John Pfeifer
The first adding machine of John Pfeifer (patent drawing)

John Pfeifer (1866-1939), а gifted mechanician from Springfield, Ohio, was a remarkable inventor. He was a holder of more then sixty patents in USA, Canada, and Europe, on calculating machines, cash registers, change makers, grave vaults, dictaphones, morgue tables, automatic curtain-hangers, signal devices, locks for automobiles, wrapping machines, automatic scales, and many others devices.

His first patent for adding machine (US400359) the young engineer Pfeifer received on 26 March 1889 (see the nearby patent drawing), while working as a foreman in the tool department of Fay Watch Case Company, New York. It was for a 5-column keyboard adding machine (can be used for adding of 5-digit numbers).

Let’s examine the operation of the above-mentioned adding machine, using the patent drawing:
As each key is depressed the counting-wheel corresponding to the operating-lever of said key is moved a number of notches represented on said key. As each counting wheel is revolved the number of notches which it moves is registered at the opening f. When either counting-wheel moves 10 notches, the next succeeding counting-wheel and its indicating-wheel are moved one notch.

The Champion Cash Register of John Pfeifer
The Champion Cash Register of John Pfeifer

In adding a column of figures the key in the units-row corresponding to each figure in the units-column is depressed, and the result will be registered by the indicating-wheels through the openings f. The keys in the tens-row corresponding to each figure in the tens-column are then depressed with a similar result, the indicating-wheel of the units column remaining unchanged while the other indicating-wheels are moved corresponding to the numbers on the depressed keys.

The operation is continued for each column representing hundreds, thousands, etc., the result of any addition being disclosed by the indicating-wheels as they appear at the openings f above and in front of the keyboard.

In 1900, while in his home city, Springfield, Pfeifer organized a company for the manufacturing of a portable cash register, so called Champion Cash Register (see the nearby image), which was invented and patented by him in late 1890s (US patents Nr.Nr. 579604 and 628961). Three years later he sold his interests to the Mast & Foos Company and joined this company in the capacity of superintendent of its cash-register department.

The Little Giant of John Pfeifer
The Little Giant of John Pfeifer

One of Pfeifer’s patents for adding machines (US Nr. 1663726, filed Dec. 1924) was put in production in 1920s in the adder Little Giant (see the nearby image), manufactured by Kel-San Manufacturing Co. in Dayton, Ohio.

Little Giant was shaped like a cash register (quite similar to the earlier calculating devices of Jabez Burns and John Ballou), and features a small wooden case with dimensions: 16 x 14 x 14 cm, and weight: 1.4 kg. The resetting of the machine is cumbersome, since each disc has to be set to zero individually from right to left and always triggers a carry. Obviously, the mechanism is extremely simple, but as the inventor himself stated in the patent application:
An object of the invention is to provide an adding machine so arranged that it can be very cheaply manufactured; a further and more specific object in this connection being to provide a machine, practically all the parts of which can be stamped from sheet metal and assembled without the necessity of machining, drilling or threading any of the parts.
A further object of the invention is to provide a simple form of transfer mechanism between the adding wheels.
A further object of the invention is to provide a very simple and cheaply constructed casing for the mechanism of the machine.

Biography of John Pfeifer

John Pfeifer was born at Springfield, Ohio, on 9 June 1866, the second son of Charles (1843-1895) and Elizabeth (1846-1920) Pfeifer (nee Berg). Charles (born as Karl August Pfeiffer in Gross-Gumpen, a village in the region of Hesse) and Elizabeth (Elisabeth) were Germans, who emigrated to USA in 1864 together with their just born son—Peter (b. 1863). Initially they settled in Pennsylvania, but then established their home at Springfield, Ohio, where were born their next children—John (1866-1939), Caroline (1868-1942), Lizzie (1870), Maggie (1872), Adam (1875), and Fred (1877).

In Springfield, Charles Pfeifer, who was a skilled blacksmith, entered the employ of the Mast & Foos Company, in the large machine-building plant of which he held a position as foreman for many years, until his death in 1895.

John Pfeifer studied at the public schools of Springfield, and took courses in bookkeeping and mechanical drawing, under the direction of private instructors. In 1881, at the age of fifteen, he entered upon an apprenticeship in the tool-making department of the St. John Machine Company, at Springfield. Four years later he went to Cincinnati and entered the employ of the Eclipse Sewing Machine Company, but within a few months he transferred his services to the Dueber Watch Works at Newport, Kentucky. In 1887 he took a position with the Fay Watch Case Company, at Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, where he won his first assignment as a foreman in the tool department (just like his father).

In 1900 Pfeifer returned to Springfield and became foreman of the tool room of the St. John Sewing Machine Company, but two years later he went to Dayton and entered the employ of the famous National Cash Register Company of Patterson, in the tool department of the plant of which he spent the next five years. He then re-entered the employ of the St. John Sewing Machine Company, and a year later he returned to Dayton with the National Cash Register Company, for which company he thereafter did important research and experimental work.

On his return to Springfield Pfeifer organized a company for the manufacturing of the Champion Cash Register, which was invented and patented by him in late 1890s, but three years later he sold these interests to the Mast & Foos Company and joined this corporation in the capacity of superintendent of its cash-register department. Two years later the company sold its cash-register business to the Toledo Computing Scales Company, and with the latter company Pfeifer continued his connection for the ensuing nine months. From Toledo he then returned to Springfield, and after here being in charge of the tool room of the Foos Gas Engine Company two years he became superintendent of the Standard Trimmer Company of this city. A year later he resumed his alliance with the Foos Gas Engine Company, as foreman of the tool room, and he was advanced to the office of general superintendent of the plant, a position which he retained five years.

In July 1920, Pfeifer organized the Springfield Auto Lock Company, which developed an important industrial enterprise in the manufacturing of automatic automobile locks and other devices likewise invented and patented by him.

In 1889 John Pfeifer married to Lillian (Lillie) Bauer (1865-1947), a daughter of Frederick Bauer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Next year, 1890, in Dayton, Ohio, was born their only child—the daughter Hazel Margarite (1890-1972).

The remarkable inventor John Pfeifer died on 29 April 1939 in Springfield, Ohio, and was buried in the local Ferncliff Cemetery.