Case Files: William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs


Who was William S. Burroughs? What was the Burroughs Registering Accountant? How did the American Arithmometer Company begin? What is the legacy of Burroughs, his science, and his rewards? Would you have purchased an Arithmometer? The Burroughs sales team would have tried to persuade you with their sales brochure.

Below are the answers to these questions that also tell a fascinating story of how one man's idea revolutionized American industry.

To Err is Human

William S. Burroughs was born on January 28, 1857 in the state of New York. He married Ida Selover in 1879, with whom he would have four children: Jennie, Horace, Mortimer, and Helen. In 1882, he was twenty-five and living with his family in the city of Auburn, NY. As a bank clerk, he was troubled by the long hours he spent pouring over bank ledgers in search of errors, and the equally long hours he devoted to guarding against such errors. He was convinced that many other clerks and bookkeepers must encounter the same difficulty. So, he started thinking about how the problem might be solved. In the meantime, Burroughs' failing health prompted his doctors to order him to find a warmer climate and a more active occupation. He obligingly moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, and took up engineering. His newly-acquired technical know-how, combined with his familiarity with banks and balance sheets, gave him the ability to produce the first office adding machine.

Here is an excerpt from a thank you letter sent to The Franklin Institute by Burroughs in the period following his receipt of the John Scott Legacy Medal. The text reads as follows: 

"You will perhaps recall the fact, that, several times you had previously written to me requesting a description of my machine. So highly did I value the honor you were able to confer that I repeatedly declined the same, until such a time as I should be fully satisfied as to its perfect working and full establishment." 

These words, written in Burroughs' own hand, offer a personal illustration of their author's anxiety over accuracy.

Getting Started

Burroughs was indeed capable of dreaming up an efficient adding machine. But he lacked one element necessary to turn his dream into a reality: money. He happened upon a financial source in 1884, when he was sent on a mechanical job to a local store in Saint Louis. He mentioned his plans for an adding machine to one of the store's employees, and the staff member was so enthused at the prospect of such an invention that he pronounced himself willing to invest in the idea. Moreover, he persuaded his friends to invest as well.

With the money he received from these men, Burroughs rented a few feet of bench space in a small, single-story brick workshop from a proprietor named Joseph Boyer. His chief assistance came from a young man who introduced himself as Alfred Doughty. By the time he got to working in this shop, Burroughs had amassed a capital of roughly $300.00, which he repaid with promised shares in the adding machine company he hoped to build.

An inventor himself, Joseph Boyer was busy developing a pneumatic hammer valve while Burroughs was working on his adding machine. The two paid little attention to each other in the cramped corners of the workshop, but Boyer’s name resurfaces in the history of the Burroughs Registering Accountant. A few years after Burroughs’ death in 1898, Boyer assumed the responsibility of directing the American Arithmometer Company, which was producing and selling Burroughs’ machine.

As director, he established a department called “Inventions,” instructing his employees to come up with inventions that would enhance the company’s product. Thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Boyer and of company staff, American Arithmometer models were developed in a dizzying variety of directions. Alfred Doughty, Burrough’s assistant, would eventually take on the company's presidency.

Building the Machine

Burroughs exercised extreme caution while drawing out the plans for his adding machine. Still troubled by the amount of time he wasted as a result of errors, he was determined that his adding machine be as fool-proof as possible. So preoccupied with perfection was he that he engraved his master drawings onto copper plates under a magnifier. Burroughs’ quest to eradicate error is seen in the design he chose for the keyboard of his adding machine. He settled on a nine-column structure, allotting a separate column of keys for every decimal place.

Despite the possibility of a “ten-key” keyboard design, which would allow the place to shift automatically, Burroughs opted for his “full” keyboard model. He reasoned that such an arrangement would lessen the chance of the operator of the machine pressing a key twice, or not pressing down hard enough, and throwing off the whole calculation. He therefore installed a nine-column keyboard, each column being made up of nine keys representing digits one through nine.

Burroughs incorporated other safeguards into his design. He equipped the mechanism with a “locked keyboard,” which caused it to freeze if there was an attempt made to punch two keys in the same column. Furthermore, when a key was pressed down, it stayed down. This enabled the operator to verify the sum he had entered before pulling the handle on the side of the machine and entering that sum into the numerical index. Finally, the machine had the capacity to print, so as to prevent discrepancies between the correct sum and the number copied down by the clerk or bookkeeper operating the machine.

Leaving a Legacy

In 1897, The Franklin Institute presented its John Scott Legacy Medal to William S. Burroughs "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."

The award-winning Burroughs Registering Accountant was an early model of what is today known as a calculator. This machine performed one simple function: addition. As a young inventor, Burroughs had realized that America was experiencing a rapid growth of industry and technology and had known there was a need for a machine that could add numbers quickly and accurately.

He was not the first to conceive of a device that would aid its user with the process of adding long columns of numbers: several of his contemporaries were working on ways to mechanize the process in 19th Century America. However, he was the first to transform current principles into a key-set, crank-operated adding-listing machine. He sat down to construct such a machine in 1884, unaware of the far-reaching effects his adding machine would have on America and the world.

How It Works

The Burroughs Registering Accountant was able to function largely because of a mechanism known as a pivoting sector. This pivoting sector was fundamental to the invention, crucial because it smoothed the process of carrying a 1. This mathematical procedure had previously posed a problem to other inventors of calculating machines. Below is an animation detailed the mechanism. Descriptions of each numbered process are provided.

Animation detailing the inner workings of the Burroughs Registering Accountant, an artifact at the Franklin Institute.

The Forward Stroke

1. A bank clerk depresses key (a) and pulls the operating lever of the machine forward.
2. The action of pulling the lever causes a sector (b) to swivel round on a pivot at its center.
3. The projection (c) attached to the pivoting sector descends.
4. As the projection (c) descends, the rack (d) at its top descends as well.
5. The descent of rack (d) is brought to a stop by wire (e).
6. Wire (e) acts as the "depressor" because it is attached to key (a), which was pressed by the bank clerk using the adding machine in step 1.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pivoting sector:

1. The other end of the pivoting sector (b) is equipped with typefaces, which correspond to the keys in the column under which the sector is operating.
2. When the movement of the sector (b) is halted by the wire (e), the typeface which corresponds to key (a) is opposite the printing space. In this case, it is typeface 6.
3. At the end of the handle's forward stroke the printing of the sum entered in step 1 takes place.

The Reverse Stroke

1. When the bank clerk pulled the machine's handle at the beginning of the operation, he caused a pinion bar to withdraw and take the recording pinion (g) out of gear with the rack (d), mentioned in step 4 of the "Forward Stroke" process.
2. The bank clerk now begins to return the operating lever to its original position, throwing the recording pinion (g) into gear with the rack (d).
3. As the rack (d) returns to its starting position, the recording pinion turns through just six spaces (in this case, it turns through 6 spaces because, as you remember from step 2 in the "Pivoting Sector" section above, the bank clerk initially pressed down on key number 6).

Carrying and Printing

Carrying a 1 from one column to another posed a problem not only for Burroughs, but for others struggling to create similar machines. In order to facilitate carrying, the Burroughs adding machine goes through the following process:

The movement of the recording pinion is affected by the pinion on its right. When the pinion to the right passes from nine to zero, a lug on that pinion releases a lever which holds a stop in place. This stop, when in place, restricts the movement of the rack. When the stop is removed, the corresponding rack will rise, turning one additional tooth in recording pinion in order to accomplish the carrying operation. The lug on the pinion to the right of our recording pinion returns to its normal position and resets the stop during the next forward motion of the operating lever.

By means of a hammer positioned at the rear of each one, the typefaces are banged against the spool of paper which has been threaded through the back of the machine. An ink ribbon stands between the typefaces and the paper, and the swinging motion of the hammers causes each typeface to leave ink imprints on the paper ribbon. The printing hammers are operated by springs whose movement is triggered at the last moment of the forward movement of the operating lever. The printing hammers are connected in such a manner that not only those that correspond to the depressed racks, but all those located to the right of the highest figure struck are released at this point.

This realizes Burroughs' goal of printing a zero to hold the place of each lower column not containing a depressed key and is necessary given that each column contains only digits one through nine. The printer spitting out each sum is located on the rear of the Burroughs Registering Accountant, making it difficult for our clerk to see what is printing. If he wants to view what is printed, he has to lift a carriage on the rear of the machine. For this reason, the Burroughs machines were called “blind” printers.

Final Total

The instruction booklet for the Burroughs Registering Accountant directs the operator requiring a total to “first execute one complete movement of the operating lever with no keys depressed. Then depress the total key and hold same depressed during a second complete movement of the operating lever.” The initial movement of the operating lever in this step returns the racks to their normal position. Due to the carrying process, some of the racks may be one tooth above their normal position. Pulling the operating lever without first depressing any of the keys accomplishes the racks’ return, so that a final total can be obtained.

Pressing the total key has the effect of reversing the mechanism which pushes and pulls the recording pinions into and out of gear with the racks.The act of pulling the machine’s operating lever causes the wheels to be pulled out of gear. Therefore, the “reversing effect” of the total key enables the recording pinions to remain in place as the racks descend, thus retaining the sums they have been “recording.” After the bank clerk operating our machine presses the total key and pulls the operating lever forward, the racks descend. During this descent, the racks turn their respective recording pinions back to zero. In doing so, each rack causes the sector attached to it to turn through the numerical distance corresponding to its own recording pinion. This makes the appropriate typeface come up and print. If the bank clerk first wants to clear his Burroughs Registering Accountant for the purpose of entering a new string of numbers and then printing their sum total, he must continue depressing the total key while returning the operating lever to its original position. This will cause the recording pinions to remain out of gear and in their zero positions during the descent of the racks. The retention of these zero positions enables the bank clerk to deem his Registering Accountant “clear.”

However, if he wants to continue adding figures to the sum total, the bank clerk must allow the machine to hold the sum in its mechanical memory. In that case, he releases the total key before returning the operating lever to its starting position. In doing so, he places the mechanism which throws the recording pinions in and out of gear in its original “unreversed” position, note that the recording pinions slip into gear when the operating lever is pushed back. The racks then return the pinions to their original positions, and thus the machine still retains the sum.

Wheels and Interchangable Parts

Watching the Wheels Go 'Round

Burroughs took a certain pride in his streamlined, accurate creation. In order to display the ingenious design of the Burroughs Registering Accountant, its inventor installed little glass panels. This addition enabled consumers to watch the inner joints of the machine as they made their carefully mechanized movements. The glass was eventually replaced by steel, as the company found that its clientele was interested only in the fact that the machine worked; they did not care to know why or how. Later, aesthetic improvements included setting the keyboard at an angle agreeable to the hands and selecting pleasing colors for the outer shell of the machine.

The excerpt shown here, taken from Burroughs' thank you letter to The Franklin Institute upon receipt of his award, speaks of the pride he derives from his ability to Watching the Wheels Go 'Round. The text remarks: 

"You must know something too of the close kinship an inventor feels with the creation of his brain. It is to him a thing alive, a part of his very being and any recognition given to it, is as dear as life itself. Above all you must understand the crowning satisfaction of a well-earned success."

Interchangeable Parts

Burroughs championed the principle of complete interchangeability. The parts making up the infrastructure of his machine were fully interchangeable, which aided mechanics making repairs. It was also useful in the year 1898, when the American Arithmometer Company established a firm in Europe. Thanks to Burroughs’ principle of complete interchangeability, a British-made part could fit snugly into a machine produced in St. Louis.


In 1884, pressure from investors convinced Burroughs to exhibit his machine, despite its known imperfections. In 1885, the inventor made application for basic patents, and the following year saw the founding of the American Arithmometer Company. By 1888, pressure from stockholders had convinced Burroughs to start production of his machine. He had complied reluctantly with investors’ demands, unsure that the patterns he ordered would produce the foolproof machine he had endeavored to design. The initial shipment of machines in 1890 confirmed the inventor’s fears: the Burroughs Registering Accountant’s first consumers had complaints. The trouble centered around the main operating lever, which allowed the machine to accumulate numbers when it was pulled steadily forward and then released. However, the contraption’s inexperienced clientele misused the lever and then complained that the machines weren’t arriving at the correct totals.

Not one to be thwarted, Burroughs applied himself to investigating the problem. Seventy-two sleepless hours of work yielded a solution: an oil-filled dashpot. Incorporated in the machine's infrastructure, the dashpot would smooth its operations despite usage errors made by the handler. In 1891, 100 improved Registering Accountants left the company’s workshop, the failures having been recalled and stored away. To celebrate his success, Burroughs hurled these faulty models, one by one, from the window of the company’s storeroom. “I have ended the last of my troubles,” he proclaimed as the malfunctioning machines crashed to the ground.

Oil-Filled Dashpot

The importance attached to the oil-filled dashpot is seen in the records of the Burroughs case file, compiled while the Franklin Institute was considering recognizing this inventor with an award. Upon reviewing the report, which was released after the award had been presented, the American Arithmometer Company noticed an inaccuracy in the description of the dashpot's function. American Arithmometer secretary E. G. Langhorne wrote to the Franklin Institute, informing the awards committee of their mistake. The letter, along with the Franklin Institute's response, is a footnote of sorts, tucked into the report to indicate a modification of its description of Burroughs’ machine. Taken together, both documents indicate the significance of the oil-filled dashpot.

Expansion and Merger

The American Arithmometer Company struggled financially in its early days, unable to report the sale of significantly more than 5,000 machines by the end of 1900. From the mid-1800s to 1900, adding and calculating machines were met with opposition by bookkeepers and counting-house clerks, who feared that such machines would displace their services. Sales of Burroughs machines grew rapidly after 1900, outselling their primary competitor: Felt & Tarrant.

American Arithmometer experienced its first major expansion in 1898, when Sir John Turney of Nottingham acquired the rights to manufacture Burroughs machines for all the countries and continents of the Eastern hemisphere, including Britain and Europe. Having gotten its start in 1886 in Saint Louis selling only the Burroughs Registering Accountant, the expanding American parent company moved to Detroit in 1904 and changed its name to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. The new name honored the machine's inventor, who had died in 1898. An expanding product line helped the company to flourish, and in 1953, it began to produce computer products and was renamed the Burroughs Corporation. That same year, the company factory, located in Strathleven, Scotland, was honored by a royal visit from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who was accompanied by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. Thirty-three years later, in September of 1986, Burroughs Corporation merged with Sperry Corporation to form Unisys Corporation.

The Scott Medal

The process of selecting William S. Burroughs as the recipient of the 1897 Scott Medal involved a full examination by the Committee on Science and the Arts, according to their rules.The archive of this process exists here as a legacy to the careful consideration of the scientist and his work.

A Scottish chemist named John Scott bequeathed the sum of $4,000.00 in funded 3% interest stock of the United States to the corporation of the city of Philadelphia. His will, written in the year 1816, stipulated that interest and dividends yielded by this stock were to be distributed in the form of premiums to men and women judged to have come up with ingenious inventions. Each premium was not to exceed the amount of $20.00, and was to be rewarded along with a copper medal bearing the inscription, “To the most deserving.” The Select and Common Councils of the city of Philadelphia passed an ordinance in February of 1834 that vested the award of the premium and medals in the Franklin Institute. In 1869, administration of the John Scott Legacy Premium and Medal was conferred on the “Board of Directors of City Trusts,”,  In turn, this referred control of the aforementioned award to its own Committee on Wills’ Hospital and Minor Trusts. April of 1882 saw a resolution made by this Committee to “favorably receive the names of any persons whom The Franklin Institute may, from time to time, report to the Committee on Minor Trusts as worthy of receiving the John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium.” Having accepted the above resolution, The Franklin Institute put its Committee on Science and the Arts in charge of making the necessary evaluations and recommendations.

The Committee on Science and the Arts (CSA) took care to compile a report on each invention or improvement its committee members judged worthy of the premium and accompanying medal. That report was then published three times in the Journal of The Franklin Institute, with the first publication occurring three months before the CSA would make an official recommendation to the Council on Minority Trusts. These publications allowed the public to review the inventions, and to raise objections as to their originality. If no such objections were made, the Secretary of the Institute certified the recommendation of the award to the Committee on Minor Trusts of the Board of City Trusts. Digitalized documents pulled from the Burroughs case file illustrate the process that resulted in his receipt of the John Scott Medal.

Taking Notice

In 1897, just a year before Burroughs’ death, The Franklin Institute recognized the achievement of this inventor with a John Scott Legacy Medal. This particular medal was presented by the city of Philadelphia, based on the advice of The Franklin Institute’s Committee on Science and the Arts (CSA). Appointed in 1824, the Institute's advising committee was originally called the “Board of Examiners.” For a brief time, the appellation was changed to “The Committee on Inventions,” and since 1834, the group has been referred to as “The Committee on Science and the Arts.” This group was formed by The Franklin Institute's Board of Managers in response to “the need felt by inventors and discoverers, for some competent, trustworthy and impartial body, on whom they could confidently rely for an opinion as to the usefulness of their inventions and discoveries.” The CSA provided this service through the examination and evaluation of inventions proffered during America’s age of industrial revolution, a time when the U.S. Patent Office was neither as well-organized nor as well-functioning as it is today.

At this point in history, the Institute judged that the investigation and encouragement of new technology was vital to the growth of the nation. Accordingly, its Committee on Science and the Arts approved, disproved, or offered advice concerning the improvement of a given invention. In special cases, the CSA honored the inventor or improver of technology with an award or premium in acknowledgement of his contribution to “the Mechanical and Useful Arts.”

Each invention undergoing evaluation by The Franklin Institute's Committee on Science and the Arts was given a case file, where documents prevalent to the study of that invention were kept. The Franklin Institute charged an application fee of $5.00 for the submission of inventions for evaluation. The Burroughs case file, pulled from Franklin Institute archives, records primarily the correspondence between Institute secretary W.H. Wahl and CSA committee member Hugo Bilgram, and American Arithmometer employees E.G. Langhorne and H.B. Wyeth. Numerous checks on the status of the award application by American Arithmometer reveal that the young company was anxious for prestigious recognition; furthermore, it was convinced that The Franklin Institute's respected position in 19th century society rendered the organization capable of offering such recognition.

Following are the rules generated by the Committee on Science and the Arts (CSA), governing the procedure for the selection of award candidates, particularly as they applied to the consideration of William S. Burroughs.

Rule 1

A recommendation for an award of the premium and medal shall be made only by the Committee on Science and the Arts, on a report of a sub-committee which shall have been appointed to examine such invention.

Rule 2

The invention or improvement to be examined shall be accompanied by a clear description and drawings of the same, together with a model, if required, and also a statement on the particulars of the inventor’s claim to originality.

Rule 3

When the invention is a composition of matter, specimens of the ingredients and of the compound sufficient for the purpose of experiments, and to preserve in the cabinet of the Franklin Institute, shall be furnished by the inventor.

Rule 4

Upon adoption by the Committee on Science and the Arts of a report setting forth that an invention or improvement is worthy of an award of the premium and medal, publication shall be made three times in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, stating that at the expiration of three months from the date of the first publication, the Committee on Science and the Arts will recommend to the Committee on Minor Trusts of the Board of the City of Trusts, the award of the said premium and medal to the inventor, unless within that time satisfactory evidence shall have been submitted to the Committee on Science and the Arts of the want of originality of the supposed invention and improvement. In case no such objections to the final award of the premium and medal shall have been made, the Secretary shall certify the recommendation of the award to the Committee on Minor Trusts of the Board of City Trusts.

Rule 5

All applications for the John Scott Legacy Premium and Medal must be made to the Secretary of the Institute, by whom the applications and accompanying descriptions, drawings, etc., shall be laid before the Committee on Science and the Arts, and by whom all publications ordered by said committee, in relation to said premiums and medals, shall be made.

Accepting the Award

Recognition from The Franklin Institute was appreciated by each of its award recipients.

The William S. Burroughs presentation was made possible by support from Unisys and The Barra Foundation.