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How America’s First Adding Machine is Connected to ‘Naked Lunch’

William Seward Burroughs (no, not that one) was the first man to invent a commercially practical calculator

An early adding machine, c. 1890, invented by William Seward Burroughs, grandfather of the beat writer. (National Museum of American History)
smithsonian.com

Today every phone is a calculator, but in the late 1800s, adding machines were big business. These specialized calculators added up in dollars and cents, enabling fast and accurate bookkeeping.

The idea of a machine that could do math for you dates back to the seventeenth century: mathematician Blaise Pascal and astronomer Wilhelm Schickard both had the idea. But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that anyone designed a workable, commercially viable adding machine. That man was named William Seward Burroughs, and he was granted several adding machine patents on this day in 1888.

By this point, writes MIT-Lemelson, “there had been a number of earlier prototypes, but, in inexperienced users’ hands, those that existed would sometimes give incorrect, and at times outrageous, answers.” Seeing this hole in the market, Burroughs, a former bank clerk, set to work. He formed the American Arithmometer Company with three colleagues in 1886. Their first model, manufactured the next year, was sold for $475 apiece. Only 50 of them were made, and they had some flaws– Burroughs “was the only one who could could operate them correctly,” writes MIT-Lemelson.

He planned the next iteration carefully, adding several safeguards that would make the device easier to operate and harder to make a mistake with. He also gave the machine the ability to print, so as to prevent human error. His improvements were instituted in the 1890s, which is also when the American Arithmometer Company took off. (In 1892, Burroughs also patented an electric alarm clock.)

In 1897, Burroughs received a medal from the Franklin Institute honoring him “for the ingenuity displayed in successfully combining a calculating machine with a printer so as to obtain a printed record of the operation of the machine."

Sadly, he didn’t live to enjoy his success. His ill health caught up with him and he died in 1898, leaving his wife and five children. One of those children was Mortimer Perry Burroughs, the father of another William Seward Burroughs–the prominent American author.

Of all the original William S. Burroughs's children, the author's father Mortimer was the only one to hang on to company shares past about 1900, writes author Ted Morgan. The others were persuaded to sell up by his executors. Mortimer Burroughs sold in 1929, just months before the stock market crash–the $276,000 he got for his shares was a comfortable sum, but his son always said that he wouldn't want more. Burroughs had a conviction "that wealth stifles the creative impulse," Morgan writes, and money just provides reasons not to write. (Still, the writer's parents supported him with an "allowance" well into adulthood, writes James Attlee for the Independent.)

Meanwhile, the American Arithmometer Company thrived. Eventually, its successors–the Burroughs Adding Machine Company and then the Burroughs Corporation–were involved in the design and manufacture of some of the first computers.

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