Willgodt Odhner

A person hears only what they understand.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Willgodt Theophil Odhner (1845-1905)
Willgodt Theophil Odhner (1845-1905)

There are a few legends about how the young Swedish engineer Willgodt Odhner (1845-1905) became interested in calculating machines at the beginning of the 1870s. However, there are two stories about that told by Odhner himself. First of them is, that as a quite young engineer Odhner had in 1871 an opportunity to repair a Thomas calculating machine and then became convinced that it is possible to solve the problem of mechanical calculation in a simpler and more appropriate way. The other story is that in 1875 Odhner had read an article about Thomas arithmometer in Dinglers Polytechnisches Journal and thought it might be possible to construct a simpler calculating machine.

No matter when Odhner commenced his arithmometer, the prototype was finished at the end of 1875. The device was a pin-wheel-based calculator, housed in a rectangular wooden box and calculating with eight-digit precision. Odhner however didn’t consider this device as his first calculator (maybe it was too bad, or it relies too much on the ideas of Staffel or somebody else), because later on will write, that his first machine was manufactured in 1876, when was produced the second prototype (again pin-wheel, but with nine-digit precision).

In one interview, Frank Baldwin claimed that: “It was about this time that one of my 1875 models found its way to Europe, falling into the hands of a Mr. Odhner, a Swede. He took out patents in all European countries on a machine that did not vary in any important particular from mine, and several large manufacturing companies in Europe took it up. It is now appearing under ten to fifteen names in Europe, the more important being Brunsviga and Triumphator, manufactured in Germany.”

However, this assertion of Baldwin is quite questionable, despite the fact, that Odhner didn’t reveal his sources. Odhner seems to have been unaware of Baldwin’s calculator because it was patented in February 1875, when Odhner was already working on his calculator project. Most probable, Odhner used as sources machines of Roth or Staffel, which were well known in Europe since the 1840s. Actually, the pin-wheel of Odhner resembled very much the pin-wheel of David Wertheimber (the English agent of Roth), patented in 1843. Especially the machine of Staffel was well known in Russia because it was presented to the Russian Academy of Science in St. Petersburg and has been described in the Russian language. Later on, Werner Lange thoroughly analyzed the differences between the designs of Odhner and Baldwin and noted that the system of Odhner, where the result register is moving and the input wheels are fixed, is mechanically better. Staffel’s calculator is in this respect similar to the Baldwin calculator, but the input wheels are much smaller.

First arithmometer of Odhner from 1877
First arithmometer of Odhner from 1877

At the end of 1876, Odhner tried to convince his boss—the noted businessman Ludvig Nobel, to start the production of the calculator. Nobel made a deal with Odhner for producing 14 calculating machines. The capacity of these was 10 instead of 9 of the ”first” model. Nobel has given Willgott the use of a small portion of the factory to work with his machine and the production began at the beginning of 1877. Nobel and Odhner have made an agreement that Nobel shall carry all costs to see the business started and until then he is paying Odhner a salary on the condition that when the business has started they shall share for better or worse and take one-half of the profits each. These first Odhner’s factory-made calculators were finished in the latter half of 1877 (see the nearby image), and a total of 14 machines were built. However, later on, Nobel lost his interest and production ceased.

At the beginning of 1878, Odhner left one of his calculators to be refereed by the Imperial Russian Technical Society. He might have hoped to receive a state prize like the earlier Russian calculator inventors Slonimski and Staffel had got. The referee report for the calculator states:
…the same four basic arithmetic operations as with the Thomas arithmometer can be performed, even though the mechanism is different. Odhner arithmometer is much simpler with fewer different parts so the price of Odhner’s device will be much lower, the price being one of the reasons for the scarcity of calculating machines. Odhner’s device, with the same capacity as the Thomas arithmometer, also demands much less space. The arithmometer is only the first prototype and it can certainly be improved, even though it is praiseworthy in its present form. One must also note that some of the defects of the device are caused by the fact that until now the machine has been made manually without any special machines for producing different parts. A final statement on all the details of Odhner’s device can be given only after long-time use, but at least the following remarks can be made.
The durability of the revolution register clearing crank knob and the hook that moves the carriage is not sure.
Sometimes the dial wheels of either the result register or the revolution register (counter) stop halfway between two values and it is impossible to know which of the two digits partially showing in the window is correct. The same defect appears also in Thomas arithmometer, but there you can jerk the device slightly to obtain a correct outcome in the window. This does not work in Odhner’s machine, but the dial wheel trigger mechanism could be changed to correct this defect.
The turning of the crank is rather hard. To start the motion it may be necessary to use so much power that one must hold the device with the other hand to prevent it from moving on the table. The greatest power is needed when all the input values are set to nine. In the Thomas machine, the effort is also greatest when all the input values are nine, but even then it requires much less effort than the device of Odhner.
The size of the greatest possible multiplicand is 8 and the greatest possible multiplier 7, but the product can be calculated only with 10 numbers instead of the possible 15. This defect restricts remarkably the use of the device, but can no doubt be corrected. The tens carry operation is restricted so that only the 5 rightmost numbers of the product register are correct. By small modifications which do not increase the size of the device, this defect could be corrected.
In multiplication and division, the crank is often turned too many times. To correct it, the crank has to be turned once more but in the opposite direction. Then the value of the result register is corrected, but the value of the revolution register shows a defective value of two revolutions from the correct value. This defect which does not appear in the Thomas machine should be corrected so that the reverse turn corrects both the value of the result register and the revolution register. In some cases, clearing of the revolution register is quite difficult. If the values of all seven digits are equal, the small size of the clearing crank makes the clearing heavy. The defect could be corrected by introducing clearing by a spring analogous to one used in the Thomas arithmometer. The setting levers are so small that the design could be modified so that the fingers of the operator would not get tired so easily. This might be important during long calculations…

Odhner certainly studied this statement very carefully and tried to correct the defects in the improved version of his arithmometer.

In October 1878 Odhner received the US patent №209416,  although he had to change his initial patent application because some claims are found to be anticipated in the patent of Baldwin and in the patent of Alonzo Johnson (he was a holder of the US patent №85229 from 1868 for a simple adding device). This is another evidence, that Odhner didn’t know about Baldwin’s machine, because in this case, he wouldn’t include the disputed claims in his initial application. Nevertheless, the patent process was so fast and easy that Odhner and his business partner Königsberger decided to apply for a patent in other countries as well, thus they soon got a German patent (№7393 of 1878), a Swedish patent (№123 of 1879), and a Russian patent (№148 of 1879).

The dimensions of the first machines of Odhner are: 29 x 11,7 x 14,8 cm, and the weight is 6,3 kg.

The pin-wheel mechanism of Odhner (patent drawing)
The pin-wheel mechanism of Odhner (patent drawing)

Let’s examine the principle of action of the pin-wheel machine of Odhner, using the patent drawing (see nearby drawing).

The mechanism consists of two disks: basic (called counting wheel), which has nine grooves with fingers (marked with d) with projections. Over the basic disk is mounted a thin disk (called input disk) with groove L, in which are pushed in the projections of the fingers of the basic disk. The input disk can be rotated by means of a crank, and as the groove is in the form of two arcs with different radius, when the projection is pushed in the lower, then the finger is in the lower position, and when the projection is pushed in in the arc with bigger radius, then the appropriate finger is in upper condition and is sticked out of the periphery of the basic disk. Thus, if we want for example to enter 5, we have to rotate the input disk so, 5 fingers from the counter disk to be sticked out.

After all the digits are entered, then the main crank (the big crank in the right part of the machine), and all disks will be rotated according to the number of sticked out fingers of the appropriate counter disk, then the registration disk E, which is connected to a 10-teeth pinion will be engaged with the fingers and will be rotated to the proper angle. During this rotation the counter and the input disk are rotated together, so the entered number is kept. Newer models have levers for resetting of the input and registration mechanisms. The teeth I of the figure are part of the ten-carry mechanism. The cylindrical keys P, which can be seen in the front lower part of the body, are revolution-counters for the appropriate counter and input wheels. The mechanism with registration wheels is mounted as a separate block and can be moved leftwards and rightwards according to the mechanism with counter and input wheels by means of a slider. This is necessary during multiplication and division.

The adding operation is performed, as the addends are entered consecutively by means of the levers of the input wheels, as the entered number can be seen in the upper row of windows and by rotating the main crank these numbers are transferred downwards to the registering wheels, and the result can be seen in the lower row of windows.

The subtraction is done in a similar way, but after the minuend was transferred to the registration wheels and the subtrahend is entered in the input wheels, the crank must be rotated in the opposite for the adding direction.

The multiplication is done by consecutive adding. First, the bigger factor is entered by means of the input wheels, then the lever must be rotated so many times, according to the units of the other factor. Then the registration mechanism is moved rightwards by means of the slider, and the lever is rotated so many times, according to the tens of the other factor, and so on, until are used all digits of the other factor. The result can be seen in the lower windows.

An advertisement of Odhner machine from early 20th century
An advertisement of the Odhner machine from the early 20th century

The division is done by consecutive subtraction. Let’s examine the example, given in the patent of Odhner, 285582/8654=33. First, we enter the dividend and transfer it by rotating of the crank to the middle row of windows (registration mechanism). Then set up the divisor, and adjust slide H one place to the right, until the first digit (8) of the divisor is directly over the second digit (8) of the dividend, counting from the left. Then turn the crank C backward or to the right until the first digit (8) of the divisor can no longer be subtracted from the digits in the dividend which under and to the left of it. The number 3, which is the first digit of the quotient, will then appear on the second cylinder, P, and the dividend will be reduced to 25962, The slide H is next moved one place to the left, or back to its original position, and crank again rotated until the dividend disappears and a line of zeroes stands in its place. Figure 3 will then appear on the first cylinder, P, making the second figure of the quotient sought—to wit, 33. It will be seen, that the result indicates that the divisor, 8654 is contained three times in the first five figures, 28558, of the dividend, and three times in the new or second dividend, 25962.

Biography of Willgodt Odhner

Odhner at the age of 33 in 1878
Odhner at the age of 33 in 1878

Willgodt Theophil Odhner was born in Westby, parish of Dalby in northern Wärmland province of Sweden, on 10 August 1845, as the firstborn in the family of the forester and surveyor Theophil Dynamiel Odhner (1816-1863) and Fredrika Sofia Wall (1820-1874), the daughter of Gustaf Adolph Wall, a land-owner near Karlstad. Willgodt had three brothers: Hjalmar Mildhög (1846-1936), Sanfrid Victor Petrus (1851-1895), and Carl August Theophilus (1863-1918); and two sisters; Anna Fredrika (1847-), and Hildegard Petronella (1854-).

As a boy, Willgodt was just like his father Theophil Odhner, who ”was intended for the Ministry, and went through the college at Skara, but he was a practical, mathematical and inventive genius, and had no desire for the ministry.” Willgodt attended the school of Karlstad for two years in 1854-1856. After that, he moved to Stockholm to work at the lamp store of his uncle Aron Odhner. Soon he changed to a more challenging position as an employee of the instrument maker Georg Lyth.

At the beginning of 1863, Theophil Odhner suddenly died at the age of 46 leaving behind him a poverty-stricken widow and five young children, with a sixth to arrive three months later. The Odhner’s mother Fredrika was a very intellectual and poetical woman, who struggled bravely to bring up her children in the midst of much poverty.

On 3 Sep. 1864, Willgodt matriculated at the Kungliga tekniska högskolan (the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm) to study practical mechanics and mechanical technology. Odhner was promoted to the third year’s class in 1866, but never finished his studies and left the school during the spring of 1867.

The financial situation in Sweden was quite bad in 1868 and it was difficult to find a job. Thus Odhner decided to try his luck in St. Petersburg, Russia. He arrived in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1868 by steamboat at the age of 23 without knowing a word of the Russian language and having only 8 rubles with him. From the harbor, Odhner walked to the Swedish consulate where secretary Damberg, arranged for him a job at the small mechanical workshop of Macpherson at a salary of 1.1 rubles a day. After some months Odhner changed to work for his countryman Ludvig Nobel (Ludvig Nobel (1831-1888), one of the most prominent members of the Nobel family, was a remarkable engineer, a noted businessman, and a humanitarian) in his machine factory on the recently started rifle conversion project. The time that Odhner worked for Nobel was very important for his later career. Nobel did not appreciate diplomas and final examinations and thus it did not matter that Odhner had not completed his studies. He advanced soon to be a foreman and chief foreman.

In 1871 Willgodt married Alma Eleonora Martha Skånberg (1853-1927), born in Latvia, a daughter of Frederik Skånberg, a colleague of Ludvig Nobel. They will have eight children, but their life continued to be difficult from the very beginning because he writes: when the priest and musicians were paid at the wedding feast, my funds were so small that if my mother-in-law during the return trip had not given to me 10 rubles, we could not have eaten bread with our coffee on the following day. Even though Odhner was a technical genius, he clearly was not a very economical character and had difficulties in paying the expenses of his family and later also the salaries of his employees.

Odhner started to design his arithmometer probably in 1874 and the prototype was finished at the end of 1875. It was not very easy to design a calculator in one’s scant spare time. ”To work from 7 in the morning to 8 in the evening is not very nice for a newlywed poor man having a young and beautiful wife”. Twelve or fourteen hours a day was a common workday in Russia, but Nobel reduced it to 10.5 hours but maybe somewhat later. Odhner’s first child Alexander was born in 1873. His mother had come to St. Petersburg to see the birth of her first grandchild and died there in 1874. The progress of Odhner’s efforts was reported in an article that appeared in the newspaper St. Petersburger Zeitung on 10 Sep. 1875.

After the agreement with his boss—Nobel, for starting the production of the machine in the factory, Odhner again met many difficulties, personal and official. The relations of Odhner with the directors of the factory were quite bad. Odhner had to make debt to finance his living. At this time he had two children to take care of, Alexander, and Alma born in 1877. Earlier in 1877, Emilia—the second child of Odhner died at the age of two years. The political and economical situation in Russia was not good, because in the same 1877 was opened war between Turkey and Russia, so Nobel started to lose interest in the project for calculators. Thus Odhner started to ask for e new investor and he found it—as he writes I believe particularly energetic local businessman a certain Königsberger, on the condition that he takes the patents and pays all expenses and afterwards divides with me the future profits. However, it was not possible for me to get anything in cash. This would have been so welcome because I am now unemployed.

And again a lot of problems—Karl Königsberger was a serious businessman, but his purpose as a merchant was thus not to produce anything, but to sell the invention as such. The first selling efforts after patenting the invention were directed to the United States, where he had a business partner, but these were not successful. A representative of Königsberger succeeded in selling the license to German company Grimme, Natalis & Co to produce Odhner calculators for Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland, but that did not happen until 1892.

Even though Nobel did not want to continue the production of calculating machines, he promised Odhner a special project at his factory but when he traveled away from St. Petersburg, his ”masters” hired another Swede to do that. Odhner believed though that with patience he would get a better job and hoped every day to obtain one. In May 1878 Odhner began his work at ‘Экспедиции заготовления государственных бумаг’, a factory for producing state papers and he will stay there for the following 14 years. In 1881, after 3 years of work, Odhner received a great gold medal for his innovations. In addition, Odhner was also highly esteemed in the hierarchy of the Expedition. Although he was officially registered as a master technician, he received the higher salary of an engineer.

In 1886, the Expedition hired engineer Ivan Ivanovich Orlov, who developed a new printing press capable of producing multicolored images using only one printing plate. This new printing method was immediately implemented by the Expedition and Odhner was chosen as the producer of these and all later Orlovian presses for the Expedition.

In 1882 Odhner started his own business to produce a paper cut in special forms, together with his brother Sanfrid and an Englishman, working in the Expedition. Odhner designed and constructed different paper-cutting devices for the job. It is not known what happened to the paper business after 1882, but evidently, no great fortune was made with it. In the same 1882, Odhner constructed a turnstile for counting and controlling ticket sales, which was later widely used for passenger steamships operating on the canals of St. Petersburg, and also in amusement parks.

W. T. Odhner factory in St. Petersburg, beginning of 20th century
W. T. Odhner factory in St. Petersburg, beginning of the 20th century

In 1887 Odhner was granted official permission to open his own workshop, which will later on become the W. T. Odhner factory in St. Petersburg (see the nearby image). In the beginning, the only machine in the workshop was an old pedal-driven lathe and several workers. In 1889, a cousin of Odhner, engineer Valentin Odhner, who had graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, joined the staff. Odhner’s elder son, Alexander, was the commercial assistant. In 1890, when the production of arithmometers began, the workshop had one 2 H.P. steam engine, the number of workers was 20, and the annual production value was 11000 rubles. Only two years later, in 1892, the workshop had one 4 H.P. petroleum motor, 20 various lathes, 25 workmen and 10 children, and an annual production value of 30000 rubles.

In 1890 Odhner took all the rights for his machine from Königsberger and was granted a new Russian patent for an improved machine. The input was now read from the cover, not from the pinwheels and the clearing mechanism of the revolution register (counter) was better. Inside the calculator, Odhner had added an extra pinion between the pinwheel and the number wheel. The pinwheel is also more compact than the previous version and resembles much Wertheimber’s 1843 patent. The patents were also registered in France (№261806, 1890), Luxemburg (1890), Belgium (№91812, 1890), Sweden (№3264, 1890), Norway (№2117, 1890), Austria-Hungary (№45538, 1890), England (№13700, 1891), Germany (№64925, 1891), Switzerland (№4578, 1892), and USA (№514725, 1894). In 1893 the arithmometer was exhibited with success at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1890 Odhner started a powerful publicity campaign for his new calculator and mass production of the machine.

The prices of 11 and 13-digit arithmometers were 75 and 100 rubles (100 rubles was a good month’s salary at this time). In Germany, the price of the Brunsviga was 300 marks, corresponding to 150 rubles. At the same time, the price of a 16-digit Thomas arithmometer in St. Petersburg was 300 rubles, while a 16-digit Layton arithmometer (system Tate) cost as much as 800 rubles. 500 calculators were produced during the first two production years—1890-1891. Until 1895 were produced 1500 calculators. Two years later the number of produced machines was 5000, and the machine started to receive international awards and medals at exhibitions. The production of Odhner type machines under different names in different countries continues as late as the 1970s.

1892 was the year when Odhner finally quit his work at the Expedition and devoted his time entirely to his workshop. After 14 years in a secure position, this was a great change. More room was needed for growing production, but for that purpose, a capital was also required. Because Odhner did not have money, he took an Englishman, Frank Hill, as his partner and they founded Mechanical Factory of Odhner & Hill. The new company expanded swiftly. In 1893, the effect of the new factory building and other investments can be seen clearly—there were now 98 workers and two steam engines with a total capacity of 20 H.P., the annual value of production being 123000 rubles.

In 1895 Odhner decided to break the partnership with Hill. The brief duration of this partnership suggests that he was not a very co-operative person. In addition, his earlier projects with Nobel and Königsberger were also not very successful. In 1892, the production license of the improved 1890 version was sold to Grimme, Natalis & Co. in Braunschweig, Germany which chose the name Brunsviga for the calculator. The investment cost 10000 German marks plus 10 marks royalty for each calculator sold. This was a quite good income for Odhner even though the source claims that Odhner sold the licenses too cheaply. When Grimme, Natalis & Co. also had to start their production from scratch, it is no wonder that the company did not pay any dividends in 1890-1903. The Brunsviga had a market success, as until 1912 were produced and sold over 20000 machines, Brunsviga machine remained in production until 1958. The success of Brunsviga and all Odhner’s type calculators is due to their simple construction, reliability, and reasonable price.

The production palette of Odhner’s factory varied and of the various products, one can mention cigarette machines designed by Odhner capable of producing 4000 cigarettes in an hour, Orlov printing presses, small mechanical precision instruments and castings of brass, aluminum, and cast iron. In addition to these, other production included turnstiles for ships and amusement parks, control systems for trains, gramophones, and on the military side, sights, rangefinders, and munitions cartridges for artillery. The bestseller of the Odhner’s factory certainly was not the arithmometer, but the Orlov printing press.

The production of the machine gradually increased. Before the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war Odhner’s factory received great orders from the Government, for fine machinery connected with guns. These orders made Odhner quite a wealthy man, but at the very end of his life.

An advertisement of Odhner's factory from 1903
An advertisement of Odhner’s factory from 1903

Willgodt Odhner died on 2 September 1905, from a heart illness. After Odhner’s death his sons Alexander Hjalmer (1873-1918) and Georg Willgodt (1880-1910), and his son-in-law Karl Sievert (married to his daughter Julie Ida (1882-1970)), continued the production and about 29000 calculators were made until the factory was forced to close down in 1917, and moved their operations to Sweden. The new Swedish company was named AB Original-Odhner, and a new factory was built in Gothenburg. In 1942 the company was bought by AB Åtvidabergs Industrier. Odhner´s calculator was popular around the world and was manufactured until the 1970s when cheap and simple electronic mini-calculators came onto the market.