George Phineas Gordon

George Phineas Gordon (1810-1878)
George Phineas Gordon (1810-1878)

George Phineas Gordon (1810-1878) was a famous American inventor (with more than 50 patents on his name), printer, and businessman, who developed the basic design of the most common printing press ever, the Gordon Letterpress. At the end of his life, in the middle 1870s, he was obviously so wealthy, that decided to produce an adding device, to keep accounts of his money :-).

The adding machine of Gordon, similar to several earlier devices (like these of Henry House, Elmore Taylor, Calvin Holman, and others), has never been patented but it was in production in the late 1870s, although in small series (more than 30 devices were produced).

The adding device of Gordon is a stylus-operated circular adder with a capacity of up to 9999. It measures approximately 23 cm in diameter/2 cm thick, with a very early bakelite and thermoplastic base with a heavy nickel-plated top mechanism. The machine may be used on a desk or screwed to the wall.

Let’s see the operation of the device, using the directions, printed on the box (see the image below).

Gordon's circular adding machine
Gordon’s circular adding machine

1. Place the adder so that the bar crossing the index ring will be at the right.

2. Place the pointer in the hole in the red on the outer ring and move the ring till the pointer is stopped by the LOWER PART of the bar. The figures 00 on the ring will then be seen at the opening. Then move the inner ring in the same way and the figures 00 on that ring will also be seen at the opening. The adder is now ready for use.

3. Place the pointer in the hole opposite any number you wish to add and move the ring as before. That number will appear at the opening. Do the same with the next chosen number and the SUM of the two numbers will appear, and so on to any extent from 1 to 10000.
The outer ring adds units and tens; the inner ring adds hundreds and thousands; or the outer adds cents and the inner adds dollars.
When the total is found, the hole in the red on the outer ring will be at a number which will be the balance of 100. If, for instance, the number on the outer ring is 47 at the opening, the hole in the red will be at 53, and shows the cents of the change to be given if the amount received has been one dollar.
Add the cents first. About three sums of cents can be taken at a glance. If needful, thus—24, 36, 19, and the like. The carrying being AUTOMATIC, the result is ALWAYS CORRECT if the right figures are moved.

Note: Always hold the pointer vertical.

Biography of George Phineas Gordon

George Phineas Gordon was born on 21 April 1810, in Salem, New Hampshire, where his family had lived for more than 150 years. He was the second son of the merchant Phineas Gordon (1781-1850), and Mary (White) Gordon (1780-1852). The family had seven children: Louisa, Mary, Cuthbert, George, Wealthy, Adeline (1820-1899), and Edward.

Phineas Gordon was the fifth-generation heir of the early settler Alexander Gordon (Gorthing) (1630-1697). Alexander was a young Scotsman, a soldier in the Scottish army of 1651, which came into England with the design to place King Charles II on the throne, but was captured at the Battle of Worcester, became a prisoner of war, and with several thousand of his countrymen, was held in a prison camp. In 1652 300 of these Scotch prisoners were selected for transportation to New England, where they would be sold to planters and mill owners, the usual terms prevailing as to price and length of service (six years). In New Hampshire, Alexander worked as a miller, planted and farmed, and raised his family.

George Phineas Gordon was educated in Salem, NH, and in Boston, Massachusetts, where the family lived in the 1820s. After leaving school George became an actor for a short time but failed to achieve a livelihood at this, in the early 1830s he moved to New York, where he became an apprentice printer.

The Franklin press of George Phineas Gordon
The Franklin press of George Phineas Gordon

Upon learning the trade, Gordon opened a job printing shop of his own, and around 1834 he began to experiment with press design. In the middle 1830s, he is recorded as inventing a speedy card press, but he got his first patent (US patent No. 7215) for a printing press (it was a job-press—a relatively small press, called also jobber) as late in March 1850, and manufactured it as the “Alligator”. It had many flaws, and was soon replaced by the “Yankee”, then by the “Turnover” (patented in August 1851), and then by the “Firefly”, which could produce 10000 printed cards an hour. In 1858 he introduced the successful “Franklin” press (Gordon was a spiritualist and claimed that Benjamin Franklin had revealed the basic design of the press to him in a dream, but actually the “Franklin” press was based on previous inventions), which has ever since been known as the Gordon Jobber.

The “Franklin” press (see the nearby image) was a strong, well-built, and easy-to-operate machine. It solved the problem of clam-shell presses (which previously had “snapped” and endangered pressmen’s fingers) by having the platen open on cams, so that it was flat and lagged for the pressman as he fed the sheet, before closing parallel to the type bed.

Gordon ultimately built more than 100 kinds of presses. Initially, his machines were made for him by outside machine shops. At the height of Gordon Jobber popularity, however, in the second half of the 1860s, he decided to begin manufacturing presses himself. Thus he established a workshop in Rhode Island, and in 1872 he built his own factory in Rahway, New Jersey (see the lower image), with a capacity of 600 presses a year. The factory closed down in 1909.

Gordon Printing Press Works in Rahway, New Jersey
Gordon Printing Press Works in Rahway, New Jersey

George Phineas Gordon was twice married. His first wife was Sarah Elizabeth Cornish (1824-1851). They married in 1846, and had a daughter, Mary Ann (b. Sep. 1847 in New York), but Sarah died only 26 years old, on 5 April 1851, in New York. Later Gordon married Lenor May (b. 1830 in Connecticut).

George Phineas Gordon died of disease of the heart, on 27 January 1878, at his residence on Freemason Street, Norfolk, Virginia, and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.

Gordon left a fortune that was estimated at almost a million dollars, a huge sum for the time. His will was known to exist, but it took his family twelve years to find it. His real legacy was a printing press that became almost universal in printing offices for more than a century.