Joseph Alexander

In the beginning of 1860s Dr. Joseph Bell Alexander (1821-1871) of Baltimore, Maryland, devised a rather interesting calculating machine, and on 15 March 1864, took out US Patent №41898 for it. It seems the machine never went into production and only the Patent Office model survived to the present (kept in Smithsonian Institution), but it was used in other calculating devices, for example in the cash register of Melvin Lovell.

The adding device of Alexander was a lever-set adding machine, made by copper, brass, paper, and wood. Measurements: 20 cm x 14 cm x 19 cm. The construction is somewhat similar to that of earlier devices like Jabez Burns’ Addometer and John Ballou’s Calculator, but its mechanism is much better designed.

Joseph Bell Alexander's calculating machine (the patent drawing)
Joseph Bell Alexander’s calculating machine (the patent drawing)

The device of Alexander has a wooden case with a curved metal front and back, and somewhat resembles an early cash register.

It contains eight sets of wheels and figured drums. The eight cogged wheels can be rotated vertically on a common crosswise shaft. Each wheel is linked to a lever that extends from the front of the machine and is rotated upward to enter a number. The digits from 1 to 9 are stamped on the front of the case next to the opening for each lever, to indicate the digit being entered. Each large cogged wheel is linked to two smaller wheels. Each one of the smaller wheels has the digits from 0 to 9 inscribed around the edge. The first turns forward, and gives the total entered (used in addition and multiplication). The second rotates in the opposite direction, and indicates differences (used in subtraction and division). Multiplication is carried out by repeated addition, while the division—by repeated subtraction.

Joseph Bell Alexander's calculating machine (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)
Joseph Bell Alexander’s calculating machine (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The tens-carry mechanism of the device was implemented by means of a double pinion (marked with D and D’, see the nearby drawing), connected by the drum X. Every tenth tooth on a large wheel has a spring cog or tooth (marked with i), working on a pivot on the left-hand side of the main wheel A, that drives the adjacent wheel D, causing carrying (borrowing) to be done as needed at every ten carries.

The results recorded by the smaller wheels are visible through two rows of windows at the top of the case. Each of these windows has a hinged cover, the upper cover inscribed SUBTRACTION RESULT, the lower one inscribed ADDITION RESULT. A row of keys at the front of the machine is used in division and are connected to a mechanism, which is not connected to the main calculating mechanism. There is a crank on the left side (attached to the ratchet-wheel F) for zeroing the wheels associated with division keys. In the patent drawing is supposed to be a zeroing crank for the upper wheels also, but none is on the model.

Joseph Bell Alexander's calculating machine (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)
Joseph Bell Alexander’s calculating machine (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The patent model is marked with a paper tag attached to the left side (see the upper image): J.B. Alexander Calculating Machine Received 17th Decr ‘63.

Biography of Joseph Alexander

So, who was the inventor of this small adding device, named Joseph Bell Alexander?

Not a whole lot is known about this man (interestingly, in the middle of 19th century there was another Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was the model of Conan Doyle’s character, the world’s most well-known detective, Sherlock Holmes).

The physician Joseph Bell Alexander was born on 11 May 1821, in New Bern, North Carolina.

In early 1860s Joseph Alexander moved from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and was co-owner (with Dr. Charles Brown) of the undertaking firm of Brown&Alexander, located at 323 D Street Washington D.C., which prepared Abraham Lincoln’s body for his funeral tour in 1865, and president’s son, Willie, when he died three years earlier.

Joseph Alexander married in 1864 in Epiphany Church at Washington, to Finnella Maury (Little) Alexander (1839-1904), a daughter of John Little (1805-1876), a rich landowner in Washington, and Margaret (Foyles) Little (1810-1872).

Joseph Bell Alexander must have been a very inventive person, because besides the above-mentioned patent for a calculating machine, he took out several other patents—six patents for improvements of oil-burning lamps, a couple of patents for siphon bottle and bottle-stopper (actually it was the first American siphon bottle found in patent records), a patent for automatic railroad switch, etc.

Dr. Joseph Bell Alexander died on 12 July 1871, in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.