Today in Technology History

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August 21

An image from Burroughs's patent of August 21, 1888.Two days ago, we discussed a man who died young after inventing a calculating machine. Today, our subject is a man who built another calculating machine, two centuries later, and also died young.

William Seward Burroughs was born in 1855 in Auburn, New York. He left school at the age of 15 to earn his way in the world, taking jobs at banks, stores and lumberyards. His father, a frustrated inventor who made models for other inventors, no doubt inspired young William to cultivate his creativity.

In his father's workshop in the mid-1880s, Burroughs invented a machine for performing simple arithmetic. His calculator had rows upon rows of keys for entering the numbers to be summed; the machine could "print or permanently record the final result." Burroughs obtained a patent for this machine, his first mechanical calculator, on August 21, 1888.

His later machines incorporated improvements, most notably the ability to print out each figure as it was entered. Each of his later machines was also sturdier, and therefore more salable. A side view of the calculator in Burroughs's first patent. By the mid-1890s, the company he founded, the American Arithmometer Company, was selling hundreds of the Burroughs calculators to banks and other firms. In time, as the machines became more sophisticated and reliable, Burroughs's company began to outsell its competitors.

Burroughs did not live to enjoy his company's success; he died in 1898 at the age of 43. Two decades after his death, his company -- renamed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company -- was worth millions of dollars and had employees around the world. In the 1920s, the Burroughs company produced a popular portable adding machine; the company soon became the world's leading manufacturer of office calculators. Eventually, the Burroughs company moved into the computer business, and in 1986 it merged with another company to form the high-tech firm Unisys.

By the way, if the name William S. Burroughs sounds familiar to you, that might be because you've heard of the inventor's grandson and namesake, the famous poet of the "Beat generation."

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