William Burroughs

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.
Albert Schweitzer

William Seward Burroughs (1857-1898)
William Seward Burroughs (1857-1898)

In 1875, the young William Seward Burroughs, son of a mechanic from Rochester, New York, according to the father’s desire to choose a gentleman’s vocation, entered the Cayuga County National Bank of Auburn as a clerk. There he spent long and tedious hours of adding numbers. He was already interested in solving the problem of creating an adding machine, after attending a mathematical lecture in 1872, but now it become an obsession. In the bank, there had been a number of earlier prototypes of calculating aids, but in inexperienced users’ hands, those that existed would sometimes give incorrect, and at times outrageous, answers.

The clerk work was not in accordance with the young man’s wishes, for he had a natural love and talent for mechanics and the boredom and monotony of clerical life weighed heavily upon him. Moreover, five years in the bank caused his health came to break and he was forced to resign.

At the beginning of 1880, Burroughs was advised by a doctor to move to live in a warmer climate area and to get a more active job, so he moved to St. Louis, where he obtained a job in a machine shop (according to some sources, his father Edmund Burroughs had moved his machine shop in St. Louis in the late 1870s, so William started his new career in his facility). These new surroundings, which appealed to him more (there he met many inventors, including Frank Baldwin), hastened the development of the idea he had already in his mind and the tools of his new craft gave him the opportunity to put into tangible form the first conception of the adding machine. Accuracy was the foundation of his work. No ordinary materials were good enough for his creation. His drawings were made on metal plates that could not stretch or shrink by the smallest fraction of an inch. He worked with hardened tools, sharpened to the finest points, and when he struck a center or drew a line, it was done under a microscope.

Joseph Boyer's machine shop, St. Louis, 1880
Joseph Boyer’s machine shop, St. Louis, 1880

Burroughs soon gave up his regular employment and looked around for a small, well-equipped workshop where he could rent bench space and obtain an assistant to carry on his work. He finally located the shop of Joseph Boyer (see the nearby photo), a St. Louis manufacturer of Canadian origin, where he set up his tools and started out to make the adding machine commercially practical. Burroughs started his work with a meager capital of $300, and his funds soon disappeared. Joseph Boyer soon became the greatest factor in making the calculating machine of Burroughs a possibility, supporting and encouraging him.

Seldom has an inventor with a great idea been compelled to struggle under such conditions as faced the young inventor during the time he was developing his ideas for the adding machine. He set out to raise money by the sale of stock in the projected enterprise. With this money, he would then begin his experiments again, but about the time he was well underway, the bottom would drop out of the treasury. However, at the Boyer shop, activities continued unabated in spite of these obstacles. A small organization was built up, which made in brass the adding machine parts that the inventor desired. Finally, in the latter part of 1884, the first model of the machine was displayed and was the basis for the Burroughs patents, the first of which were applied in 1885 and granted in 1888 (see the lower drawing). The first machine was a nine-digit adding device with a printing mechanism, designed to record only the final result of a calculation. On the same date, but of later application, another patent (with No 388118), was issued to Burroughs, which claimed to combine the recording of the numerical items and the recording of the totals in one machine.

There now came a long period of new discouragements. The first machines proved unsatisfactory, principally because the human equation had not been taken into account. One person would operate with a heavier touch than another, consequently, the results obtained on the machine varied. The stockholders complained and the general opinion was formed that the new machine was a failure. Furious, Burroughs walked into the stockroom one day and tossed his machines out of the window, one by one.

A drawing from the first patent of Burroughs
A drawing from the first patent of Burroughs

But the setback was only a whip to Burrough’s determination. He began work again notwithstanding the fact that he was upon the verge of a physical breakdown. In fact, he did all of his earlier work under the handicap of gradually declining health. At his bench, he toiled for hours, without food or sleep, and on the morning of the third day from the beginning, he had eliminated the one great defect by an automatic controller, or dashpot. With this addition, the machine became practical, in that it could be operated by even a novice.

Then came the problem of manufacturing and selling the machines. On 20 January 1888, there was organized at St. Louis the American Arithmometer Company, which was incorporated with a capital stock of $100000. The original officers were: Thomas Metcalfe, president; William S. Burroughs, vice president; Richard M. Scruggs, treasurer; and A. H. B. Oliver, secretary. A contract was entered into with the Boyer Machine Company for the manufacture of the device, the selling operations were established and from time to time different models were put out, the beginning of the long line of models now manufactured.

By 1887, Burroughs had manufactured 50 machines. The straight adding and listing machine Burroughs had invented was the company’s only product; its purchase price was $475. In 1890 first machines were demonstrated in banks in New York and St. Lewis and some orders were accepted. The first fully functional machine of Burroughs is based on the patent, granted on 5 May 1892, and it was during this year, that the first large-scale production was undertaken. In 1895, sales climbed to 284 machines, and a dividend was paid to stockholders. That year Burroughs Adding and Registering Company was established in Nottingham, England, marking the company’s first entry into the international marketplace and the first ever international company for calculating machines.

Between 1895 and 1900, business really took off. Sales jumped to 972 machines and the machine won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition. Sadly, Burroughs, who had suffered a lifetime of chronic health problems, died in Citronelle, Alabama, on 14 September 1898. William Joseph E. Boyer, who had supported Burroughs’ efforts for many years, became president of the American Arithmometer Company in 1902. In 1904 the company moved to Detroit where it built a huge plant. That year the company’s name was changed to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Next year total sales were 7804 machines and employment rises to 1200. In 1906, Burroughs claimed that as of October 5 of that year, 40000 of its machines were in use in over 30000 concerns and that “ninety per cent of all adding machines sold are Burroughs.” In 1908 Burroughs offered 58 models, “One built for every line of business.” In 1910 Burroughs machines were already used by over 100000 users.

The Burroughs Adding Machine Company had quite aggressive management and market behavior (later on the company will be sued for “Conspiracy, Attempt to Monopolize and Monopoly”). When a potential competitor with a good machine appeared on the market, Burroughs simply makes a proposal for acquisition, which “cannot be refused”. This line of acquisitions began in 1903 when Joseph Boyer secretly enters into an agreement to acquire the Addograph Manufacturing Company, whose director was Hubert Hopkins and was financed by Dalton. The name Hopkins later becomes famous for the Moon–Hopkins machine. In 1908 Burroughs acquired the Universal Adding Machine Company of Missouri, which manufactured the first key-driven electric calculator with 2-color printing tape. In 1909 Burroughs acquired the Pike Adding Machine Company of New Jersey. In 1921 Burroughs purchased the Moon-Hopkins Billing Machine Company of Missouri.

For the next fifty years, Burroughs grew into the largest adding machine company in the world. It introduced new products including variations of the basic adding machine, typewriters, check protectors, and picketers.

In 1953 the Burroughs Adding Machine Company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation, a name more reflective of their broad scope of products, which began to include electronic computers. In 1986, Burroughs Corporation merged with Sperry Corporation to form Unisys Corporation.

Burroughs Adding Machine, Class 1, Model 9 (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)
Burroughs Adding Machine, Class 1, Model 9 (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)

During the first 3 decades of manufacturing Burroughs machines were manufactured in three designs:
Class 1 – The original design machine with one calculating mechanism, produced since 1892.
Class 2 – machines with two calculating mechanisms, and a special key for transferring a number from one mechanism to the other, produced since 1910.
Class 6 – machines with one calculating mechanism and direct subtraction (not by complementation).
These 3 classes are based on the original design of Burroughs and are known as blinding type, because the operator cannot see the printing results from the front of the machine.
Other classes of machines carry the Burroughs name but are not based on the original design of Burroughs.
Class 3 – the earlier Pike machine.
Class 4 – visible typing machine with a special multiplication device for shifting the numbers.
Class 5 – non-printing Burroughs Calculator (very similar to the Comptometer of Felt), produced since 1911.
Class 7 – calculating typewriter, manufactured previously by Moon-Hopkins, produced since 1921.

Later were presented other series of machines:
“P” series – a 20-pound “portable” adding machine, introduced in 1925.
“J” series – a range of ten-key adding and listing machines, introduced in 1954.

The external appearance of the classic Burroughs adding machine changed very little from 1892 into the 1920s (see the lower photo). The distinguishing features are the high-sloping keyboard, the beveled glass front, and the printing mechanism out-of-sight at the rear of the machine, which can be put in motion by means of a crank on the right side. There is also a glass front, and the display register is actually inside the casing. Many machines had glass sides as well, to display the internal “rocking segment” mechanism and the ornate cast-iron framework.

Burroughs Adding Machine, Class 3 (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)
Burroughs Adding Machine, Class 3

This particular machine of Class 1 performs addition only, with no provision for subtraction either directly or by addition of complements. There are two large keys on the left-hand side for totals and sub-totals, and three smaller keys for non-add, repeat, and error (or keyboard clear). The red buttons at the top of the machine act as zero keys to clear the individual keyboard columns.

Class 3 machines, based on the Pike machine (see the nearby photo), are equipped with the following auxiliary keys:
• Total key – all sums are indicated with a star, and at the same time, the calculating mechanism is set to zero.
• Subtotal key: all subtotals are indicated by an S.
• Non add key: all amounts not added, are specially marked.
• Correction key: when it is pressed, all the keys that have been pressed down return to their normal position.
• Repeat key: this key is useful for repeating actions (add and subtract) for multiplication and division.

Although the case shows a remarkable similarity to the Felt & Tarrant’s Comptometer, the Burroughs keyboard differs in a number of areas. The ten-shillings column has a full row of “1” keys, while the 10 and 11 pence keys are shifted sideways into the farthings column. There is no key release button, as the machine does not have a misoperation locking mechanism. There are no subtraction cutoff levers, so it is necessary for the operator to left-fill a complement entry with 9s. A small unlabeled key in the top left corner enters a 9 into the leftmost column. Felt & Tarrant however sued Burroughs for patent infringement based on the similarity of the cases, and Burroughs modified the appearance of its calculator.

Burroughs Calculator, Class 5 (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)
Burroughs Calculator, Class 5 (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)

An eight-column Burroughs Portable from the 1930s (see the lower photo), with direct subtraction and an internal electric motor drive. A small cover plate on the right-hand side can be opened to install a manual operating lever when required. The function keys in the rightmost column are Sub-Total, Total, Non-Add, Repeat, and Error (or keyboard clear), with the Add and Subtract bars at the far right.

Burroughs Portable Adding Machine (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)
Burroughs Portable Adding Machine (Courtesy of Mr. John Wolf)

Biography of William Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs as an 18 y.o. frail bank clerk
William Seward Burroughs as an 18 y.o. frail bank clerk

William Seward Burroughs was born in Rochester, New York, on 28 January 1857, to Edmund Burroughs (1826-1892), a mechanic, and Ellen Julia (Whipple) Burroughs (1833-1922), a homemaker. Edmund was such a fervent admirer of William Henry Seward (1801-1872), the famous abolitionist and governor of New York, that he named his son after him. William had an elder brother, Charles E. (born 1852), and sister (Anna, born 1855, who became a music teacher), and a younger brother (James, born 1861, who became a printer, then ventured into the emerging automobile business).

Edmund Burroughs was born in New York in 1826. He was the son of James C. Burroughs (7 Oct 1801–31 Oct 1865), who in the early 1840s moved west and bought a farm near Lowell, Michigan, made it prosperous, and later organized a national bank in Lowell. Edmund was a good mechanic and model-maker for castings and new inventions and had a thorough knowledge of mechanics and some inventive talent (he even filed patents for a railroad jack and a paper guillotine).

The family lived in Rochester, New York, where Edmund owned rather a successful machine shop, until late 1860, when they decided to move to live near Edmund’s parents in Lowell, Michigan. The family remained there until October of 1871 when they moved to Auburn, New York.

The years in Lowell would have a great influence on William. His elder brother Charles recalled that “Willie” spent a great deal of his time tinkering in his father’s machine workshop, located in a woodshed. He was a stubborn boy, showing an early talent for tool use, and just like his father, he was always building something, giving also evidence of persistence and resistance against the opposition. However, one thing Willie did not have was a talent for physical activities. His brother described him as hopelessly outdistanced in any boyhood activities requiring strength or endurance.

In the autumn of 1871, William entered Auburn High School. In early 1872 he went to the old Genesee str. No. 2 School in Auburn to listen to a lecture on Mathematical Short Cuts. During this talk he was fired with the idea that he can revolutionize clerical office practice throughout the world, creating an adding machine. Going to the lecture he merely expected some interesting tips that might help him with his arithmetic, but the train of thought created in the boy’s mind by the speaker, led him through sickness, financial wreck, and discouragement to the end of the rainbow to find success. After a half day of experimenting, William exclaimed: When I get to be a man I will make an adding machine that will amount to something in the world.

In 1873 William left the high school and went to work in the Auburn post office and also as a planer in a lumber yard. From there he went to the Cayuga County National Bank, where he became a discount clerk, but several years later he broke down from overwork. After a long and serious illness (he was already diagnosed with tuberculosis), William went into manufacturing on a small scale and lost all he had. Undaunted, he removed to Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1880, advised by his doctors to find a warmer climate and a more active occupation.

William moved to Saint Louis together with his father Edmund and his wife Ida (they married the previous year). In St. Louis Edmund and William Burroughs established a workshop. In Gould’s Directory of St. Louis for 1881, there was a listing for “E. Burroughs and Son, model maker; steam gauge testing apparatus, models in wood and metal, forty years experience.” Later William worked for the Future Great Manufacturing Company, and still later for Hall & Brown Co, in the manufacture of wood-working machinery. His experience with his father and these two companies, covering in all a period of some three years, constituted his entire training in practical mechanics. He had, however, a genius for theoretical mechanics, and his experience in his father’s shop brought him into contact with many inventors.

At that time the desire to build an adding machine that he had expressed earlier would now become an obsession. Although the climate in St. Louis was good for his tuberculosis, it was bad for precise drawing. He found that the high humidity caused shrinkage and expansion in his drawings, and solved this problem by scratching his concepts onto metal plates. By late 1884, William would have a working model of his adding machine and filed an application for a patent in 1885. Along the way, he would meet several businessmen, like Thomas Metcalfe, Richard Mitchell Scruggs, and especially Joseph Boyer, who would become key to the commercial success of his invention.

Mortimer Perry Burroughs (1885–1965), with his sons William Seward Burroughs Jr. (1914-1997), and Mortimer Perry Burroughs Jr. (1911-1983), St. Louis, ca. 1920
Mortimer Perry Burroughs (1885–1965), with his sons William Seward Burroughs Jr. (1914-1997), and Mortimer Perry Burroughs Jr. (1911-1983), St. Louis, ca. 1920

On 30 July 1879, William Burroughs married in Groton, New York, to Ida E. Selover (born in 1859 in the village of Moravia, near Auburn, to Perry Hazard Selover (1825-1887) and Mary Ann Allen (1827-1888). The family will have four children: Jennie (born 1880), Mortimer Perry (1885–1965), Horace Seward (1886-1915), and Helen (born 1892). Mortimer (Mote) Perry became a businessman (he ran for some time an antique shop in Palm Beach), and his second son (see the upper family photo) was named in honor of his inventor grandfather. William Seward Burroughs II (1914-1997) went on to become a notable figure in American letters in the twentieth century as an avant-garde novelist. The second son of William Burroughs, Horace Seward, became addicted to drugs (morphine), and finished his life tragically only 29 years old, from a self-inflicted wound (he cut his vein, crazed by the inability to obtain morphine).

William Burroughs was the classic absentminded inventor—his wife had to remind him to change his clothes and to eat, and used to say she had five children: two boys, two girls, and a husband. He was remote and cold to his children and didn’t allow them to bother him when he was working. He drank alcohol “to keep his energy up”, and once became so furious with manufacturing problems with his machines, that he threw open the window and tossed out all machines to smash to pieces on the ground.

In the early 1890s Burroughs’ business really took off, but his (and his wife’s) health continued to worsen. In early 1896 he resigned from the company and moved with Ida to hot-springs spa of Citronelle, Alabama, hoping that the change in climate would help him to get over his tuberculosis. However, Ida died there on 7 May 1896, and less than a month later Burroughs remarried his children’s nurse Nina F. Keltner (b. 1865). But he didn’t long survive his wife, and died in Citronelle, on 14 September 1898, only 41 years old, and was interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. His widow, Nina, was appointed guardian of the children and executor of his quite big estate.