William Seward Burroughs


“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.” William S. Burroughs in a letter to the Franklin Institute who had awarded him the John Scott Legacy Medal in 1897.


William Seward Burroughs was born on January 28, 1857 (some sources state his year of birth as 1855) in Rochester, New York. He was the third child of Edmund Burroughs who was a model maker for castings. This early exposure to an environment of mechanics and manufacturing would come in handy in years to come. At age 15 Burroughs joined the Cayuga County National Bank in Auburn, New York, as a clerk. Part of his job became the adding up of columns of figures in the bank’s ledgers to check the accuracy of the information. He noticed that many clerks often made errors in adding up figures and he soon decided that a machine should be able to do this far more accurate and faster. Due to poor health he was forced to leave the bank in 1882. His doctor advised him to move to a warmer climate and he moved to St. Louis, Missouri. There he started to realize his plans to develop an adding machine. He was given a few feet of bench space in the small workshop of Joseph Boyer (who would after Burroughs’ death become the director of the American Arithmometer Company founded by Burroughs). With financial assistance from a few interested people Burroughs managed to design the prototype of the first “full keyboard” adding machine. The machine handled figures of up to nine digits with a full set of nine keys available for each decimal position, in other words: nine columns of nine keys. At the top of the machine was a row of nine red keys used to zeroize a specific column. Burroughs preferred this layout more then the much simpler ten-key keyboard whereby each column was determined by a shift of the adding mechanism, as he expected a far greater accuracy and less operator handling errors. Adding of the figures took place by pulling a crank forward. The sum could be read on dials in the front (in later models). Burroughs added one more important feature to his adding machine: a print facility. The figures entered on the adding machine would be printed when the crank handle was reversed into its original position. The printing was done on a cash-register type roll of paper which was located at the back of the machine. The printing showed both the figures entered as well as the total accumulated and served as an audit trail of the addition. I can still remember from the sixties to staple the listing to a set of computer parts invoices added up so the accounting department could check its correctness. Although initially the paper roll was fairly small, later models could hold a full sheet of paper or a printed form and they even sounded a bell when the end-of-paper was reached. The machine only performed additions and no subtractions were possible (the subtract feature was introduced in 1911). The machine was advertised and sold as an “adding and listing machine”. In 1885 Burroughs applied for a patent for his adding machine which was granted in 1888.


Reply envelope with private advertising showing Burroughs Class 1 adding machine

In 1886 Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company, the forerunner of the Burroughs Company, with the purpose of selling its only product, the Burroughs adding and listing machine for $475.00. The company was based in St. Louis, Missouri, where Burroughs had started. He expected that all banks would jump at the new machine but initial sales were slow. Handling the crank correctly proved so difficult for the operator (only Burroughs himself could do it properly) that the first model was withdrawn soon. Burroughs designed a “dash-pot” filled with oil to overcome the problem. This gave the hydraulic leverage on the crank so that it operated correctly irrespective of the manner it was pulled. As Burroughs was familiar with the banking environment he initially marketed his machines to banks only. Later he realized that it was not only banks that were in need of an adding machine and other type of companies were also approached. As said, sales were initially slow – by 1895 only 284 machines had been sold. This soon climbed to 972 five years later; in 1926 this had risen to 1 million machines sold.

Unfortunately Burroughs continued to be plagued by ill health - in 1897 he was forced to retire and he moved to Citronelle in Alabama. He died the next year, still young, on September 14, 1898, in Citronelle, Alabama.


1913 private cover with Burroughs perfin stamp (“B” in star)


Contents of the above cover



After Burroughs’ death

In 1904 the company moved its plant and offices from St. Louis to Detroit, Michigan. The employees and their families were all moved in a special train on one day. One year later (1905) the company’s name was changed to Burroughs Adding Machine Company in honor of its founding father. For the next half a century the company would grow to become the largest adding machine company in the United States. It later added calculators, typewriters, etc. to its product line. The Burroughs adding machines became quite popular – in 1906 the Ford Motor Company produced a business car equipped with a special rack large enough to hold a Burroughs adding machine. The car became known as the “Burroughs Special”. In 1940 Burroughs produced a portable adding machine in khaki colors for the government. In 1948 Burroughs’ sales exceeded $100 million. In the early fifties Burroughs started the first steps in the development of a computer. In 1952 it built an electronic memory system for the ENIAC computer. It is interesting to note that Burroughs prime drive was still towards customers in the banking community.


In 1953 the Burroughs Adding Machine Company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation. That same year Burroughs built its first 10-key adding machine. In 1961 Burroughs launched the B5000 series, the first virtual memory computer.


In 1986 Sperry Rand (itself the result of the 1955 merger between Sperry and Remington Rand) and Burroughs merged to become the Unisys Corporation. The Burroughs name had existed for just over one century. Unisys was now the second-largest (behind IBM) computer company with total revenues of $10.5 billion in 1986.



Burroughs – biggest of the BUNCH

In the computer industry of the fifties and sixties, IBM and its major competitors were collectively known as “Snow White and the seven dwarfs”, the dwarfs being Burroughs, Honeywell, NCR, Control Data Corporation (CDC), General Electric, RCA and UNIVAC. G.E. and RCA soon left the computer industry – G.E. in 1970 and RCA one year later – leaving only five competitors. The computer industry – always keen to use acronyms – defined this as “IBM and the BUNCH” with the BUNCH being Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, CDC and Honeywell. Obviously Burroughs was by far the biggest in this group and had a worlwide network of agencies.


14 Feb 1941 Airmail from Chile to U.S.A. No censor marks were applied as U.S. only joined the war on December 7, 1941.



Burroughs honored

The Franklin Institute awarded Burroughs the John Scott Legacy Medal in 1897 "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."
In 1987 he was posthumously inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Burroughs has never been portrayed on a stamp, the closest has been the 2004 Uruguay issue to commemorate 85 years anniversary of auditing firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, which features a Burroughs Class 1 adding machine (from about 1905).


Burroughs Class 1 adding machine

The famous Burroughs Class 1 adding machine deserves a special mention. The machine weighed a hefty 67 pounds (30.4 kg) – no wonder one transported it by car. It measured 9.5”(w) x 13”(d) x 13”(h) and was often placed on a special rack to bring it up to desk height. Apart from its sloping keyboayd top its most striking feature was the beautiful beveled glass front (in later models all four sides had beveled glass) which enabled one to have a look at the intricate gears and ornate cast-iron frame inside. It was a marvel of early 20th century technology and mechanics.



© Wobbe Vegter, 2008







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