Oliver Johantgen

The only fool bigger than the person who knows it all is the person who argues with him.
Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Oliver David Johantgen (1874–1932)
Oliver Johantgen (1874–1932)

Victor Adding Machine Co. was established in Chicago on 8 Mar 1918, by three men: Oliver David Johantgen (1874-1932), an engineer with a long (since 1896) experience in the field of mechanical calculators and a holder of numerous patents in the USA, France, and Germany, who was the chief designer and the brains behind the whole operation, O. E. Cheesman, who was responsible for sales, and his brother-in-law George S. Eldred (1866-1943), who financed the company.

Johantgen designed adding machines for 20 years, but didn’t manage to find a serious investor until 1916, when he met Eldred, who was also an amateur mechanic and inventor (e.g. in 1911 he got a patent US1038735A for cigar-lighter), and soon they established Victor Adding Machine Co. The struggling company faced almost certain collapse until they secured at the end of 1918 a deposit of 100$ on a machine from one Carl Buehler (1866-1932), the owner (with his two brothers) of Buehler Bros. Co., a successful chain of butcher’s shops and grocery stores in Chicago and across the Midwest.

Victor 110 from 1920
Victor 110 adding machine from 1920

Buehler soon discovered that the new company was sadly lacking in capital, production facilities, and business experience, and that his promised adding machine was largely “vaporware”. However, Buehler recognized the potential of a low-cost machine, that could be sold to businesses such as his own, and agreed to get 10 shares of the company’s stock, to bankroll the company and assist in getting the project off the ground. He was quickly elected President of Victor, soon becoming the majority stockholder and installing his eldest son Albert Carl Buehler (1897-1971) as manager.

The first Victor adding machine, the Model 110 (see the nearby image), was introduced in 1919, but it was not a very successful device. Model 110 was a full-keyboard non-printing machine with a front-mounted register, with only repeat and zeroing keys. So it would appear that this first model was a key-set design requiring a handle pull for each entry. In effect, it was a lister without the listing equipment. Apparently, very few of these machines were ever sold and Victor moved swiftly into the production of a lister model (strangely enough, under the same name—Model 110). The company turned a profit in 1922, and built its 100000th machine in 1926. The early non-printing model cost $85, the model without carriage cost $100, and the model with carriage $125. In 1921 the machine was extended at the rear to include a printing mechanism and was released as the 200 series. At a retail price of $100, 2000 units were sold in the first year.

Victor 500 adding machine from 1931
Victor 500 adding machine from 1931

The original Victor 110 model weighed far less than standard machines of the day (16 kg vs 45 kg), contained far fewer components (about 1250 vs 2500+), and could be built affordably on modern screw machines and punch presses, rather than old-fashioned casting and milling. The Buehlers also settled on keeping the price tag at a solid $100—the same as an average working man’s typewriter of the day, but far less than most commercial adding machines.

Between 1921 and 1925, Victor’s annual sales jumped from less than $300000 to nearly $2 million. The Victor sales team used innovative techniques, including bringing the actual machines door-to-door (instead of photos) and offering incentives like full refunds or free repairs for damaged devices. This sounded like a great perk to buyers, but from Victor’s perspective, they were building such a smooth-running machine that those supposed repair, maintenance, and refund costs would actually amount to a sliver of their total budget.

An improved 300 series appeared in 1923, and a machine with direct subtraction in 1928. The 300 series grew to include 6, 8, or 10-column machines, versions for fractions, time, or feet and inches, and export models for Sterling currency. The 500 series (see the upper image) with an optional internal motor drive appeared in 1931, greatly improving the quality of the product while keeping prices level.

The Electronic Victor Medalist 204 from 1981
The Electronic Victor Medalist 204 from 1981

Until 1958 the total number of Victor calculators reached 1500000 devices. During the 1950s Victor began to diversify into other areas such as cash registers, toys, and sporting goods. The company moved to public ownership as the major partner in a “merger” with the Comptometer Corporation in 1961. By the mid-1960s the Victor Comptometer Corporation was producing more than 75 basic models, and claimed 25% of the American calculator market. Despite several acquisitions by other companies, Victor calculators are still in production now, by Victor Technology, the largest provider of printing calculators in the US.

In the nearby image, you can see the Victor Medalist 204 from the end of the 1970s, a general-purpose office calculator using a single-chip processor (A4540EB), that was developed by Rockwell in 1976.

Albert Carl Buehler (1897-1971) seen in his later years (1960s) with a portrait of his father Carl Buehler (1866-1932) behind him (Source: www.madeinchicagomuseum.com)
Albert Carl Buehler (1897-1971) seen in his later years (1960s) with a portrait of his father Carl Buehler (1866-1932) behind him (Source: www.madeinchicagomuseum.com)

Biography of Oliver Johantgen

Oliver David Johantgen was born on 8 July 1874, in Charlestown, Clark County, Indiana, USA. He was the fourth son of Nicholas Johantgen (1827–1908) and Mary Lambert-Johantgen (1834–1901).

Nicholas Johantgen was born on 24 Oct 1827 in Lebach, a town in Saarland, Germany. He emigrated to the USA in 1848, settling around Charlestown, Indiana, and several years later married the German-born Mary Lambert from Union, Boone County, Kentucky. The family had nine children—five sons: John Frank (1857–1944), George (1864–1886), Walter Francis (1869–1950), Oliver David (1874-1932), and Chauncey Rose (1876-1945); and four daughters: Virginia (born 1855), Sarah (1861–1956), Mary Elizabeth (1866-1947), and Anna (born 1871). Nicholas used to work as a farmer, but was also twice assessor of his township and candidate for commissioner.

Oliver Johantgen married Ethel Geneva Handy (3 Jan 1880-15 Sep 1970), daughter of Frederick and Emma Handy from Oregon, Indiana. They had a son: Albert Johantgen (1923-2001), and a daughter: Ruth Johantgen-McLaughlin.

Oliver David Johantgen died on 14 April 1932 (aged 57) in Evanston, Cook County, Illinois, USA.