Fawcett Plumb

On 17 June 1881, Fawcett Plumb (1834-1919), a businessman, politician, and prolific inventor from Streator, Illinois, applied for a patent for keyboard adding machine. The US patent Nr. 256591 was granted on 18 April 1882.

After the three first key-operated calculating machines in the world, invented in Europe (machines of James White, Luigi Torchi, and Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué), there are a number of patents issued in the United States on machines of this class, starting with devices of Dubois Parmelee from 1850, Thomas Hill from 1857 and Caroline Winter from 1859. All of these machines varied in construction, but not in principle. Some were really operative and others inoperative, but all lacked what may be termed useful capacity. Such machines, of course, never became popular because of their limited capacity, which required many extra movements and caused mental strain without offering an increase in speed of calculation as compared with expert mental calculation. The same is true for the machine of Fawcett Plumb.

Let’s examine the adding machine of Fawcett Plumb, using the patent drawing (see the patent drawing below).

Fawcett Plumb's patent drawing
Fawcett Plumb’s patent drawing

The machine is a simple column adder (for adding up columns of figures). The principle upon which the device is constructed consists in the revolution of a disk peripherally encircled by a series of numbers running from 0 to 99 through arcs of circles embracing from one to nine numbers by means of nine keys transmitting motion through a system of suitably-arranged levers.

Marked with A is a case, adapted to enclose the working parts of the instrument. It is provided with a removable convex cover, B, which is perforated to expose a small section of the peripheries of the units and tens wheel C and the hundreds-wheel D. Pointers E and F, attached to the said cover, designate the numbers on the wheels C and D respectively. The units and tens wheel C is mounted on a shaft, G, which longitudinally traverses the case A, being journaled in each end thereof.

The hundreds wheel D, encircled by a series of figures running from 1 to 10, is mounted on a short shaft, Q, journaled in one end of the case. The said shaft Q also supports a cog-wheel, R, provided with ten cog-teeth, with which a cam, S, rigidly secured to the shaft G, is adapted to be engaged to move the hundreds-wheel one-tenth of a revolution to every complete revolution of the units and tens wheel (thus performing tens carry).

Ten revolutions of the units and tens wheel are required in the regular operation of the instrument through the keys to effect one complete revolution of the hundreds-wheel. However, to facilitate the operation of setting the instrument, the shaft G is provided with a thumb-nut, T, by means of which the wheel C can be revolved independently of the system of levers and keys, and the short shaft Q is provided with a thumb-nut, U, whereby the hundreds-wheel may be revolved independently of the cog-wheel R and cam S.

Biography of Fawcett Plumb

Fawcett Plumb was born on 10 December 1834, in Andover, Ohio, to Frances Merrill Plumb (1806-1899) and Laura Mary Hyde (1810-1854). Frances Plumb married Laura Mary on 19 October 1830, and they had a lot of children (6 sons and 8 daughters), as Fawcett (1834-1919) was the third of them.

Frances Plumb was a humble farmer (he was a successor of the early settler John Plumb (1594-1648), who crossed the Atlantic in his own vessel from England in 1635, locating in Wethersfield, Connecticut), and Fawcett had to work in the family farm at a young age. He attended public schools before enrolling at Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1857.

Colonel Ralph Oberlin Plumb
Colonel Ralph Oberlin Plumb

At the time, in Oberlin lived his uncles, Samuel Plumb (1812-1882) and Colonel Ralph Oberlin Plumb (1816-1903) (see the nearby photo), leading citizens of Oberlin and prominent local businessmen and politicians. Colonel Plumb took care not only of Fawcett, but also of his brothers, and Fawcett worked for many years as a secretary to his uncle. Moreover, in the college Fawcett studied together with the eldest daughter of Ralph Plumb—Lucy Geraldine (1841-1875), and on 26 August 1866, Fawcett married Lucy, thus Colonel Plumb became also his father-in-law.

During his study in the college and after graduating in 1862, Fawcett worked for his uncle and studied law at the University of Albany, New York, where he was admitted to the bar in 1867. Later that year, he came to Pontiac, Illinois, forming the law office of Fleming, Pilsburgy & Plumb. He practice for one year before moving to start a real estate business in Streator, where Colonel Plumb moved in 1866, engaging in the mining of coal, the building of railroads, and banking. Besides the real estate, Fawcett Plumb’s business interests included the Streator Paving Brick Company, Eagle Clay Works (together with Colonel Plumb’s son John), and the Plumb Opera House (see the postcard below). He also co-founded the Streator National Bank in 1881 and became one of its first directors, and he was elected president of the bank in 1891.

Fawcett Plumb was a gentleman of sterling upright character, but his domestic life was full of sorrows. His wife Lucy gave birth to three boys, but all of them died in infancy—Edward (b. 1867-died after 1870), Ralph (1869-1870), and Freddie (1870-1871). In 1875 Lucy fall ill and went to Colorado for her health, but passed away a few days after arrival, on 1 July 1875, being only 33 y.o. In 1887 Fawcett married a second time, to Ermina Ballard (1858-1889), but Ermina died only two years later, leaving him one son—Ermin Fawcett (b. May 1889). In 1895 Fawcett married a third time, to his second cousin Carrie Merry (1853-1915), who also outlived.

Streator National Bank and Plumb Opera House (Plumb Theater) in the beginning of 20th century
Streator National Bank and Plumb Opera House (Plumb Theater) at the beginning of the 20th century

Fawcett Plumb was elected as an independent (he was an independent Republican, generally supporting the Republican Party, but unafraid to shift allegiances) to the Illinois Senate in 1874, serving two two-year terms.

Fawcett Plumb had an inventive mind and devised and patented many tools and machines, among them the above-mentioned adding machine, device for fastening roof tiles, kiln for burning bricks, ditching machines, and twin cylinder single acting engine. In 1884 he received an invitation to exhibit his steam tile ditcher at the World’s Fair in New Orleans.

Fawcett Plumb died at his home in Streator on 25 June 1919 and was buried in Riverview Cemetery. In his last will, he gave 45 acres to Streator, to be used as a park for the citizens (today Marilla Park), requesting the land he gave be named for Marilla Plumb, his mother-in-law and aunt who also was the wife of Colonel Plumb.