Charles Corliss

A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus.
Elwyn Brooks White

Charles Corliss (1827-1897), Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department
Charles Corliss (1827-1897), Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department

On 23 June 1868, Charles Corliss (1827-1897), a farmer and landowner from Haverhill, Massachusetts, received two patents for instruments for adding and registering numbers (US patents Nr. 79209 and Nr. 79272). One of the patents is granted to Corliss and Nelson Spofford (1826-1906), a surveyor and inventor from Haverhill, who was a holder of quite a few other US patents for various devices, so we can easily imagine that Spofford was the mechanical genius behind the invention, while Corliss was the organizational force. Besides the patent applications, nothing is known about the calculating instrument of Corliss and Spofford, so obviously it remained only on paper (even the patent model of the device didn’t survive to the present time (up to 1880, the US Patent Office required inventors to submit a model with their patent application)). Similar small calculating instruments will be reinvented many times during the next several decades.

Let’s study the operation of the instrument of Corliss and Spofford, using the drawing of the patent US79272, shown below (strangely enough the second patent has a lower number—US79209 is the second patent, but not US79272, although both patents have the same date—23 June 1868).

The invention consists of a graduated sliding rot, confined within a casing, with one end projecting a short distance from the said casing, and at the other end connected with a system of gearing or watch-work, made to operate indicators upon a dial plate.

Corliss' instrument for adding and registering numbers (the patent drawing)
Corliss’ instrument for adding and registering numbers (the patent drawing)

The operation of the instrument is as follows:
Let’s suppose a column of figures is to be added up; the instrument being grasped in the hand, the end of the bar b is placed at or near the figure to be added, each one in succession. The instrument is then pressed down, and the bar b forced into the casing, until the end of the latter is coincident with the line or mark having the figure or number, corresponding with that at which the end of the bar is placed near; the same number is at once indicated on the dial k.
The instrument being raised, the bar b is projected by the spring d, when it is again pressed upon the next figure, and so the process continues, each figure or number being taken by the end of the bar, and the total amounts successively registered on the dials.
For instance, should the bar b be moved into the casing until the graduated line 3 is coincident with the end of the head c, the indicator l will point to the number 3 on the dial-plate k, and each successive number indicated on the graduated bar will be added to the amount, already indicated on the dials.
The graduations on the sliding bar may be omitted, and the said bar be made to act directly on the dial-plate, denoting the units, so that the figures to be added will correspond with those on the dial-plate.

The object of the second patent is to improve the first one, substituting a dial to indicate the numbers to be added in the place of the graduations marked on the sliding rod or bar in the first device. A further object is to provide a means for instantaneously resetting the instrument after registering any required amount.

Biography of Charles Corliss

Ephraim Corliss (1782-1858), Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department
Ephraim Corliss (1782-1858), the father of Charles Corliss. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department.

Charles Corliss was born on 5 April 1827, in his family estate in Haverhill, Essex, Massachusetts. He was the first child in the family of not-so-young Ephraim Corliss (1782-1858, see the nearby photo) and Nancy (Carleton) Robinson (1790-1862). Ephraim Corliss (the son of Ephraim Corliss (1751-1824) and Lydia Ayer (1757-1805)) married Nancy Carleton (the widow of John Robinson and the daughter of Israel Carleton (1762-1836) and Abigail Whittier (1761-1825) from Haverhill) on 21 February 1826, in Haverhill. After Charles, the family had two daughters—Caroline (1829-1914) and Mary (1832-1913), and Nancy had a son, Edwin (1814-1881), from her first marriage.

Corliss family are descendants of the early settler George Corliss (1617-1686), born in Exeter, Devonshire, England. He came to America in 1639, and settled at Newbury, MA, but soon after he moved to Haverhill, MA, which began as a farming community of Puritans, where he resided until his death in 1686. George Corliss appears to have been an enterprising and industrious man, was made freeman, then elected Constable and Selectman of Haverhill, and founded a big farm, later known as “Poplar Lawn” (see the lower drawing and note the beautiful poplars near the fence), which has never been out of the possession of his direct descendants for the next 260 years.

Charles Corliss inherited Poplar Lawn (see the lower drawing from the 1860s) after the death of his father in 1858 (Charles was of the seventh generation from the original grantee) and lived there, taking care of the farm, containing about 50 acres, until his death in 1897.

Charles Corliss became one of the largest real estate owners in Haverhill, owned rare breeds of sheep, and was fond of carpentry. He built a new house at 33 Highland Avenue, Haverhill, and moved to it in 1881. Corliss had an excellent memory and found time for deep study of sciences was a keen student of the poetry of life (he could read from memory Scott’s long Scottish epic, The Lady of the Lake), and was an art critic. He designed a Merrimack Valley flag.

Charles Corliss had plans for cheaper transportation and was the president of the Haverhill and Lawrence Railroad, a company that had a project to build a railroad in Merrimack Valley, MA. In 1890 Corliss even announced in the local newspaper, that he laid out in his land in Bradford (Ward Hill) twenty-five lots of lands and will give, free of expense, if the railway is built within two years, to subscribers for the capital stock of Haverhill and Lawrence Railroad. Corliss planned to give the land free to purchasers who bought several shares. The stage had been set, but the state government had another plan—to build a trolley line in the valley. Corliss journeyed to Boston to speak before a legislative committee that was considering a proposal that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts spends $400,000 to establish the new railway. His words however were ignored and the trolley line became a reality. The great Haverhill and Lawrence Railroad finally went out of business.

Corliss’ residence Poplar Lawn in Haverhill, MA, around 1860, Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department
Corliss’ residence Poplar Lawn, 436 Broadway, Haverhill, MA, around 1860. Print depicting road with horse and carriage in the foreground, heading toward the entrance to the house which is lined with poplar trees. The house is in the background on the left, two stories plus attic, hip roof, flat top, portico. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department.

Corliss and his associates also had plans to make Merrimack River navigable above Haverhill, building a lock and dam, and establishing a new city (called Buena Vista) on a hill near the river. They planned to use Mitchell Falls near Haverhill to provide power for Buena Vista and to build a brand new hotel, reasoned to attract tourists. The tourists, in turn, would fall in love with the great beauty of the place and rush out to buy land there. Houses, schools, and civic buildings would spring up. And industries would begin moving into the area which already had shoe factory. In no time at all, a thriving city would burst forth where once there had been only dense woodlands.

The beginning was promising. The pretty Buena Vista Hotel was built, but just before the opening, in April 1891, a spring storm of no mean proportions, a real cyclone, destroyed the brand-new hotel. Later Corliss rebuilt the hotel and it remained in business until torn down in 1910, but the stockholders and future investors lost interest and the project for Buena Vista city failed.

Charles Corliss was not in a hurry to marry, just like his father. He was 48 when on 6 October 1875 he married Celia Davis (Hatch) Bird (1830-1922) of Boston, Mass. They didn’t have children.

Charles Corliss died from heart disease in his residence on 18 February 1897 and was buried in Linwood Cemetery, Haverhill.