Willgodt Theophil Odhner

“Be it known that I, WILLGODT ODHNER, of St. Petersburg, Russia, have invented a new and improved Arithmometer; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description of the same.
My invention is an instrument for assisting in calculating, it being adapted to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers without any other labor on the part of the operator than that required to set and rotate certain numbered and counting wheels, and to adjust a slide carrying a series of recording-wheels.”
W.T. Odhner in his application to the United States Patent Office, filed July 13, 1878. (Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 209,416, dated October 29, 1878)

Willgodt Theophil Odhner was born on August 10, 1845, in Dalby, Värmland, in central Sweden. His father Theophil Dynamiel Odhner was a practical but inventive man. He held a number of jobs, starting as a bookkeeper, but later changed jobs to become a forestry inspector. As the chief clerk at the central surveying office in Stockholm, he published a booklet on practical calculations for sellers and purchasers of grain. In 1848 the family moved to Karlstad where Odhner later attended school. After leaving school he started work in his uncle Aron’s lamp store. As this did not offer him enough challenge he changed jobs and started working for Georg Lyth, a maker of maritime and mathematical instruments. In 1859 the Odhner family moved to Stockholm and Willgodt got a position at the central surveying office where his father also worked. Father Theophil died at the young age of 47, leaving the widow with her five children (and the sixth one on his way) behind in poverty. The family had quite a technical knack with several members of the Odhner family (uncles, brothers) designing machinery or equipment and registering patents for their inventions. After his father’s death in 1863, uncle Aron assisted the family financially and in 1864 Odhner started studying practical mechanics and mechanical technology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, but although he completed his third year he never finished his study. Finding employment in Sweden was difficult in those times and in 1868 Odhner moved to St. Petersburg in Russia where he found a job in a mechanical workshop. After a few months he changed jobs and started working for fellow-countryman Ludvig Nobel – older brother of the famous Alfred Nobel.

Odhner at Ludvig Nobel’s mechanical factory

Ludvig Nobel owned a large mechanical factory manufacturing artillery shells, cannons, wheels and other products. One of his government projects was the conversion of 100,000 muzzle-loader guns to breech-loaders for which he had designed and manufactured special purpose tools and machines. Nobel was a man with excellent mechanical talents and managerial skills and tried to employ many trained and educated Swedish and Finnish staff in senior positions since the local Russian work force usually was far less educated in technical areas. Odhner joined the gun conversion project and soon became a foreman – the Nobel factory proved to be an excellent schooling ground for Odhner.

Odhner-type calculating machine from the author’s private collection. This Britanic (serial number 2923) was
manufactured in the early 1930s by Guy’s Calculating Machines Ltd in London and came with a lockable wooden case.

Belgian Odhner metermark of 3 September 1955.

Odhner’s calculating machine

Although calculating machines were quite rare in Russia in those times, it is commonly thought that Odhner must have seen (possibly brought in for some repair) or have read about the Thomas de Colmar arithmometer which was designed in 1822. He thought that he could design a better and more efficient calculating machine. His solution was based on a geared pinwheel mechanism and resulted in the well-known barrel-shaped calculating machines bearing his name. It was ready for demonstration in 1875. In 1878 he submitted an application for the patent on his invention to the United States Patent Office which was awarded three months later; this was soon followed by patents in other countries. From Odhner’s correspondence we know that he saw his new invention as the solution to his permanent shortage of finances. Fortunately Nobel saw the merit of the Odhner machine and asked him to produce 14 machines. He also gave Odhner some space in his factory for the manufacture of these machines and he agreed to carry the costs as well as paying Odhner a salary. The two men agreed they would later split the profits of this endeavour. Although the first model carried only 9-digit results, the next version could handle 10-digit answers and this increased to 11 digits by 1889. The machine had three registers: one to manually set the multiplicand, one to register the result and one to count the revolutions of the crank (i.e. the multiplier). For each manual revolution of the crank the multiplicand would be added to the results register, while the revolution register kept track of the number of revolutions. After having done one decimal position the carriage was shifted one position to the left for the next decimal. Clearing of the registers took place through the use of wing-nuts on either side of the carriage on earlier models, clearly visible in above illustration. In later models the wing-nuts were replaced by crank handles.

Nobel did not extend his hospitality and sponsorship beyond this first batch, so Odhner was on his own, unemployed and again without finances. In 1886 Odhner founded the W.T. Odhner, Maschinenfabrik & Metallgiesserei in St. Petersburg for the manufacture of his calculators. The design proved quite reliable and the machine was easy to handle. Odhner-type calculators were later sold under many names: Brunsviga, Britanic, Facit, Alpina, Walther, Triumphator and others. He tried to sell his invention but efforts on his behalf in the United States did not succeed. Attempts to sell his invention in Germany were more successful and a licence to sell the Odhner machines in Germany and neighbouring countries was sold to Grimme, Natalis & Co in Braunschweig, Germany in 1892. The company manufactured and sold these machines under the label Brunsviga and later, the company renamed itself Brunsviga Maschinenwerke A.G.

Following Odhner’s death

Odhner died on September 15, 1905, in St. Petersburg and his sons Alexander and Georg took over the reins. Their company produced about 23,000 calculators until 1917. During the Russian Revolution of 1917 the factory was nationalized and the sons moved the production of calculators back to Göteborg, Sweden, operating under the name Aktiebolaget Original-Odhner (see below). In 1918 the Axel Wibel company acquired the rights to manufacture the Odhner calculators under the name Facit. In 1924 the company was sold to AB Aetvidabergs Industri, later to become Facit AB, which in 1942 bought the majority of the Odhner shares. In 1973 Facit AB was taken over by Electrolux which sold it to Ericsson in 1983. In 1998 Facit was finally terminated. Odhner-type calculators were sold until the mid seventies. Their demise only came when the electronic pocket calculators arrived on the scene.

Odhner has never been portrayed on a stamp. Fortunately his famous calculators have been featured on a few postal items.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2008

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