Today in Technology History
(Published weekdays. To receive "Today in Technology History" by e-mail, click here. To read past issues, click here.)
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. 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."
Click here to read a short bio of William Burroughs.
Click here to see pictures of several Burroughs calculating machines.
Click here to see a 1954 ad for an electric Burroughs calculator.
This page has a timeline of the history of the Burroughs company. The chronology has a few minor errors, but is otherwise excellent.
This timeline of the history of Unisys includes several highlights from the history of the Burroughs company.
To see the full text and all the illustrations of Burroughs's patent from this date in 1888, enter the patent number (388,116) into the box on this page.
| Biotechnology | Convergence | Creativity | Culture | E-conomics | Education |
| Equity | Gov't & Politics | Innovation | National Security | Personal Security |
For errors, broken links, questions or comments,