Frederick Warren

To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.

Frederick Parsons Warren around 1868 (© Michigan State University)
Frederick Parsons Warren around 1868 (© Michigan State University)

In early 1875, as he lay seriously ill in his brother Edward’s home, Frederick “Fred” Warren oversaw the assembly of a calculating device, which he called “a machine that will astonish the world”. The so-called Warren Calculating Engine performed as its creator predicted it would, but his untimely death kept Fred Warren from astonishing the world with his invention.

Let’s return to the beginning of the story. In 1864, Frederick Parsons Warren (1839-1875), a young man of exceptional abilities from Three Oaks, then a soldier in the American Civil War, stumbled upon a very interesting article about the Difference Engine of Charles Babbage, а genius automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions. Inspired by this article, he decided to create a calculating machine in his spare time.

Fred Warren definitely had the knowledge and skills to do this, as he was an educated, energetic and intelligent man, who used to work as a teacher, itinerant photographer, and watchmaker, but nevertheless, this hardship will take him more than ten years, and he managed to finish a reliable working model as late as in the spring of 1875, only several weeks before his early death of tuberculosis on 9 April 1875.

Following his death, his younger brother Edward Kirk Warren exhibited the device around Michigan and Indiana for a short time before his health began to deteriorate. Edward admitted the machine was so complex that after Fred’s death he was unable to utilize it to its fullest capabilities, and didn’t manage to perfect and market it. Edward will become later a famous American multi-millionaire industrialist, philanthropist, civic leader, and inventor (E. K. Warren is a holder of three US patents in the field of corsetry—№286749, №311621 and №559827, but he didn’t patent the so-called Warren Calculating Engine or Warren Bros. Calculating Engine).

Warren Bro's. Calculating Engine, a photo from 1875
Warren Bro’s. Calculating Engine, a photo from 1875

Fred Warren had always been interested in machinery and sciences, so despite being only at age of 25, he definitely had some experience, when in 1864 he decided to build a machine capable of doing complex mathematical equations. From the very beginning, Warren stated he did not build the machine for manufacture or sale (that’s why the device had not been patented), “but to see what was possible to accomplish by mechanism.”

The Warren Calculating Engine (on the nearby image you can see a photo from the fall of 1875, picturing the last version of the machine and above it a portrait of the recently dead inventor at an exhibition in Chicago) is a mechanical arithmetical calculator that can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and calculate interest, with some of these operations able to be done simultaneously. It will divide one number by another, add the quotient to another number, subtract, or multiply, according to choice, at one operation. It runs backward as well as forwards, and will detect and show an error, was it possible for one to occur.

We don’t know how many examples of the machine Warren made, but three models of the device survived to our time. The first and second models appear incomplete and are kept now in the collections of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Washington, D.C., while the third seems a workable device and it is in the collections of the Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, Michigan.

First machine of Frederick Warren (© Smithsonan Institution)
The first machine of Frederick Warren (© Smithsonan Institution)

The first model (see the nearby image), finished by Warren in late 1872, is a brass, ferrous metal and paper-made device, with overall measurements: 12.5 cm x 28.5 cm x 19.2 cm. It has a row of 11 result dials that slide along the back. Each dial has a strip of paper numbered from 0 to 9 twice around the rim. Between the dials are spiral gears, which were to be part of the carry mechanism. In front of the dials and gears is a row of seven gear segments. In front of and linked to these are seven additional gear segments. A lever that extends to the front of the machine can be placed in any tooth of one of these forward segments. At the top of the machine is a tilted disc that has four toggles protruding from it.

In 1873 Fred devoted himself to his invention full-time, giving up his other work and social contacts. Fortunately, at this time his brother Edward, at that point a successful local merchant, stepped in to finance the research, although Warren brothers still did not envision the device as a potential business tool, but rather as entertainment.

Second machine of Frederick Warren (© Smithsonian Institution)
The second machine of Frederick Warren (© Smithsonian Institution)

The second version of Warren’s calculating machine (see the nearby image), was finished by Fred Warren in early 1874. It was a brass and ferrous metal-made device, with overall measurements: 18.2 cm x 66.3 cm x 30.2 cm. Across the front is a brass rod with ten large teeth, one shorter one, and a hollow brass cylinder. Between the teeth are ten levers that link to toothed segments at the back of the machine. The front and back are open; the sides are of ferrous metal painted black. At the top is a hollow brass rod, mounted across the machine, which has two brass circular structures on it. This is used as a plunger to activate the mechanism. Brass rods with large teeth extend from both sides of the back. There also is a ferrous piece in the shape of a large comb that is attached to the top back of the piece.

Fred Warren complained that the second version of his calculating machine was slow and got stuck when there were too many numbers to carry. He was eager to begin working on the third iteration, predicting that it would “astonish the world”, even as he acknowledged it had taken over his life: “I ought to get married and settle down, but this thing has got into my head…” Indeed, the third calculating machine of Warren (see the lower image), finished in early 1875, and kept now in the MSU Museum collections, looks like a genuine workable mechanical calculator.

The third machine of Frederick Warren (© Michigan State University)
The third machine of Frederick Warren (© Michigan State University)

The machine is bolted inside its original carrying case, a walnut cabinet with a glass window in the front (during the demonstration of the machine, the front window panel should be unlocked and removed.)

The device is made of nickel-plated iron or steel with brass knobs. The dials are silvered and illumined by a system of kerosene lamps. Through a slit, the numerals were reflected on a screen so an audience of several hundred people could easily see the calculations. The machine contains over 2100 specially formed pieces and over 3000 total pieces including screws and rivets. The Warrens hired a local farmhand, David Martin, to assemble those pieces at Fred’s direction, since he was already too weak to put them together himself.

Aside from the movable carriage that holds the number wheels, the rest of the machine was actually two identical units placed side by side that could be operated together or independently.

The third machine of Frederick Warren (photo kindly provided by Jane Ward, Three Oaks Township Library)
The third machine of Frederick Warren (photo kindly provided by Jane Ward, Three Oaks Township Library)

In early 1875 Fred Warren felt healthy enough to take the just finished third machine on the road for demonstrations in Niles, Michigan, and Morris, Illinois, as curious spectators could purchase a 10-cent ticket to see the machine at rest, but would need a 25-cent ticket to see it in action. Newspapers took notice of the Warren Calculating Engine, declaring it “the most intricate and complicated piece of mechanism ever constructed.” However, Fred’s health soon declined, and Edward grew increasingly concerned not only for his brother’s life, but also because only Fred truly understood how the machine works. Edward wrote several increasingly desperate letters to their brother, Albert, who had gone to California, and who was a good mechanic, imploring him to return to Three Oaks and became a full partner in the operation, but Albert declined.

After tuberculosis claimed Fred Warren on 9 April 1875, Edward continued his efforts to make the machine a success, declaring “I shall do all in my power to make it an honor to Fred and also profitable.” This proved to be an unfeasible task. Edward displayed the machine at least once more, renting a room at Chicago’s glamorous Palmer House Hotel in the fall of 1875, but was disappointed, as though there was a great interest in the device, few wanted to pay to see it. He also contacted the foremost American showman of the day, P. T. Barnum, hoping he might put the calculator before a mass audience, but Barnum did not show interest. The Studebaker brothers (carriage makers in Indiana) were impressed but said they are too busy and recommended Edward to approach bankers in New York and Boston, seeking an investor.

In 1876 George Grant, a Boston mechanical engineer and inventor of calculating machines, promised to display Warren’s machine beside his own at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, but later withdrew the offer, saying the organizers had reduced his display space. Edward was bitterly disappointed and despite the rave reviews of the machine in the popular press, at the end of 1876 he had given up, stating “I have not put any more time or money into it”. When he founded a local museum many years later, he included the third version of the machine in its collection. Though just a curiosity in a small museum, Fred Warren’s invention was not forgotten. In an October 1931 article in Business Machine Topics, Leslie Leland Locke (a famous historian and collector of calculating machines, who bought the models of the first two versions of Warren’s machine and later donated them to the Smithsonian Museum) stated that the machine “anticipated by two decades many of the developments in the art”, and “today there is not a single machine possessing all of the individual capacities of the Warren Calculating Engine”.

Biography of Frederick Warren

Rev. Waters Warren and his wife Caroline Clarissa Parsons Warren (photo kindly provided by Jane Ward, Three Oaks Township Library)
Rev. Waters Warren and his wife Caroline Clarissa Parsons Warren (photo kindly provided by Jane Ward, Three Oaks Township Library)

Frederick Parsons Warren was born on 30 March 1839 in Trumbull, Fairfield, Connecticut, in the family of Reverend Waters Warren (born 8 Oct 1801 in Ludlow, Vermont-died 30 Mar 1888 in Three Oaks Mich.) (see the nearby photo), who was a minister in the Congregational church, and Caroline Clarissa Parsons (1813-1893). Frederick has descended eight generations from an early American family—Jacob Warren (b. 1604) came to the colonies in 1635 from Weymouth, England. Frederick had an older brother, Charles Henry (1836-1859), and two younger brothers—Albert Larue (1842-1931) and Edward Kirk (1847-1919).

Fred Warren’s schooling has been limited to the public schools of Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts, where his father was holding pastorates in the 1840s and 1850s. Fred was a precocious boy, and as a teenager, growing up in Ludlow, Vermont, he became accomplished in the emerging field of photography, producing ambrotype portraits in ornate, gold-colored frames. In 1858, the Warren family settled south of Three Oaks, Michigan.

In the 1860s Fred Warren took part in the American Civil War (12th Regiment of the Michigan Infantry), spending much of 1864 and 1865 at a supply depot in DeValls Bluff, Arkansas.

Upon his postwar return to Three Oaks, Fred borrowed money from an uncle and built a two-story building on the main street. He opened a jewelry store and a watch repair shop on the first floor, and a photography studio above. Fred Warren carried on an earnest campaign for numerous improvements in Three Oaks, and devoted considerable space to urging of new industries, such as a cheese factory, which would be of prime benefit to the farmers of the region.

Sadly, within a few years, Fred gave up photography, perhaps because the chemicals damaged his already-precarious health. He worked instead as a station agent on the Michigan Central Railroad and sold insurances, all the while continuing to work on his calculating machine design.

Edward Kirk Warren (1847-1919)
Edward Kirk Warren (1847-1919)

Frederick Warren was the editor of the Reveille, Three Oaks’ first newspaper, in which he demonstrated his originality and freshness of style. The publishing began on 5 October 1872. The Reveille, though successful in every way, was short-lived (only six issues had been printed). Its publication was suspended on 22 February 1873, when Fred Warren was forced to his bed by illness from which he never recovered, although he continued his work on the calculating machine.

The Warrens were an inventive family. In the late 1850s, after moving his family to Three Oaks, Fred’s father Waters Warren devised a circular beehive that fit inside a barrel (it was patented in 1863). Fred’s youngest brother—Edward Kirk Warren (7 April 1847–16 January 1919, see the nearby image), who made his calculating machine popular, was an American industrialist and inventor who developed featherbone, a popular alternative to whalebone in corsetry. He is the namesake of Warren Dunes State Park and Warren Woods State Park in Michigan, both of which he developed. He also founded Chamberlain Memorial Museum (later its contents were gifted to Michigan State College), including in its collection the Warren Calculating Engine. One of Edward’s sons (Frederick Parsons Warren (1887–1952)) was named after his brother.

Fred Warren looked seedy all his life, but in February 1873 he was bed-ridden by a serious disease. There was much sickness at this time, due to a severe epidemic of what was termed malaria, although it may have been influenza. It was a winter of many deaths, so many in fact, that the state census of 1874 revealed fewer people in the Three Oaks township than in 1870, despite the steady growth that had taken place in the number of farms and village homes. During this same time, the entire region felt the effects of sickness among horses, which points very definitely to have been a type of influenza.

In 1874 Fred’s health even worsened (he had bleeding lungs), probably due to the hard work on the machine. Edward thought the machine was killing his brother and in March 1875 he wrote “The Dr. seems to think that if he could have a chance to get his mind off the machine that he might live several years.”

Frederick Parsons Warren died of tuberculosis at the age of only thirty-six, on 9 April 1875, and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Three Oaks, Berrien County, Michigan, USA.