Niels Larsen

In June 1876, Niels Larsen (1830-1891), a citizen of West Point, Cuming county, Nebraska, applied for a patent for calculating machine for taxes and interest. The patent was granted on 17 October 1876 (see US patent No. 183403). Besides the patent application nothing is known about the machine, so obviously it remained only on paper and had not been implemented on practice. Interestingly, one of the witnesses of the patent was Uriah Erdman Bruner (1830-1905), owner of the local Bruner’s Bank. The other witness—Frederick W. Ragoss (1845-1926), was a county clerk and owner of the local jewelry store. So most probably Bruner and Ragoss needed such a machine and ordered its creation to the inventive Larsen, who was the local mechanical genius.

The instrument of Larsen was announced as designed for calculating taxes and interest with speed and accuracy, but it doesn’t contain calculating mechanism, but a mechanism for showing tables. It consists of three concentric cylinders, which are movable independently of each other, and the two outer ones provided with openings, allowing portions of each cylinder to be seen. The cylinders bear numbers, the inner cylinder representing hundreds, the middle one tens, and the outer one units. By properly moving the cylinders the tax or interest upon a given sum or amount will be exhibited through a stationary shield.

The patent drawing of Niels Larsen's calculating machine
The patent drawing of Niels Larsen’s calculating machine

The three concentric cylinders (see the upper patent drawing), A B C, are capable of receiving each an independent movement or rotation. The inner cylinder is fixed on a shaft or axis, G, which has its bearings in the side pieces of the stand F. The middle and outer cylinders are provided with sleeves, which are movable upon each other and the shaft G, and both the shaft and sleeves are provided with milled heads E for rotating the cylinders.

The shield F, bears the name of the tax, or the number of days or months for interest, and it is perforated in such a manner as to expose to sight only the amount upon which tax or interest is to be calculated, and the amount of the tax or interest.

The operation of the machine for calculating taxes is as follows: To determine the tax on an assessment of seven hundred and sixty-four dollars, bring the figure 4 on the outside or unit cylinder to view in the opening of the shield under the word “assessment,” and let the spring-catch hold that cylinder. Now bring the figure 6 on the middle cylinder to view in the same opening, and in line with the figure 4 on the first cylinder, and let the spring-catch also hold the middle cylinder. Now, by bringing the figure 7 on the third cylinder to view in the same manner, the amount of the assessment can be read. This having been done, we find in the appropriate column for each kind of special tax indicated on the shield three lines of figures—those on the outer cylinder representing the tax on four dollars, those on the second cylinder the tax on sixty dollars, and those on the third cylinder the tax on seven hundred dollars. The three sums are then added together mentally by the person using the machine, and entered in the tax-list.

Biography of Niels Larsen

Little is known about Niels Larsen. Obviously of Scandinavian (Danish, Norwegian or Swedish) origin, he was born in 1830. The first records for him are from May 1862, when he was enlisted in the US Union Navy and took part in the American Civil War firstly one year as a 2nd lieutenant in the marine artillery, and then two years (until October 1865) as an acting ensign in US Navy (steamers Niphon and Grand Gulf).

Besides the above-mentioned patent for a calculator, Niels Larsen was a holder of two more US patents—for a candle holder (US patent No. 151297 from 1874) and for a sundial or solar compass (US patent No. 281527 from 1883).

After the war in the late 1860s and early 1870s, Niels Larsen served as a county surveyor of Cuming county, Nebraska. In this period he surveyed and platted many towns in the state, between them West Point, Nebraska, the county seat of Cuming County, which he surveyed and platted in October 1869, and Neligh, the county seat of Antelope County, which he surveyed and platted in February 1873. Then he worked a couple of years (1874-1875) as a surveyor and mine-seeker in Clear Creek County, Colorado, before returning by 1876 to West Point, Nebraska. In the 1880s and early 1890s, Larsen worked as a cashier at West Point National Bank (a witness of his patent from 1883 was William Stuefer—the president of West Point National Bank, mayor of West Point, member of the State Legislature and Senate and treasurer of the State of Nebraska. The other witness was R. F. Stevenson, the local attorney-at-law).

Niels Larsen died on 2 June 1891, in West Point, Nebraska.