Archive for January, 2005

Pioneers of Electromechanical Information Processing: John Patterson and William Burroughs

By Frederik Nebeker

As 2004 draws toward a close, we celebrate the birthdays of two pioneers of electromechanical calculating: John Henry Patterson, who made the cash register a ubiquitous device, and William Burroughs, who invented the recording adding machine.

John Henry Patterson

John Henry Patterson was born near Dayton, Ohio on 13 December 1844. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1867 and returned to Dayton, where, after trying a couple of other jobs, entered the coal business with his brother. In 1879, Dayton tavern owner James Ritty invented a cash register. Like Ritty, Patterson suspected that pilfering by clerks was a serious problem, so he installed a cash register at his business as well. The machine made a big difference and convinced Patterson that it could become an important asset for other businesses.

In 1884, Patterson bought controlling interest in Ritty’s company. He renamed it the National Cash Register (NCR) in 1894. And while he made technical improvements to the cash register, more important perhaps were his innovations in business practice: he gave salesmen rigorous training, assigned them exclusive territories and established sales quotas. Thomas J. Watson, one of Patterson’s salesmen, carried these business practices with him to the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which he turned into the information processing giant, IBM.

Patterson also supported technological innovation. For example, Charles Kettering’s motor development led to the electrification of the cash register. The motor needed to deliver high torque in short spurts, and it had to have a clutch mechanism to engage and disengage the counting wheels at precisely the right moment. (Shortly afterward, Kettering took advantage of this work and designed a motor for an automobile self-starter, which was introduced in the 1912 Cadillac.) When Patterson died in 1922, NCR dominated the cash register market worldwide and employed 10,000 people in its Dayton offices and factories.

William Seward Burroughs

Another inventor-entrepreneur was William Seward Burroughs, born 28 January 1855 in Auburn, New York. Having to support himself beginning at age 15, Burroughs worked at various jobs while working on his own inventions. As a bank clerk, he saw the need for calculating aids and developed a mechanical adding machine. What distinguished Burroughs’ machine from other adding machines — such as that developed at about the same time by Dorr E. Felt — was that it printed the numbers added and the total.

In 1885, Burroughs formed the American Arithmometer Company. His first machines proved impractical, but in 1892, he completed an improved model and the company finally achieved success. In fact, it was growing rapidly at the time of Burroughs’ death on 15 September 1898.

In 1905, American Arithmometer Company was renamed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. It expanded its product line, and by 1908 offered 58 different machines. As with the cash register, electrification of the machines increased their speed, functionality and ease of use. Burroughs Adding Machine Company, later Burroughs Corporation, became one of the leading suppliers of office equipment.

Copyright 2004 IEEE. Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, “IEEE-USA News & Views”, December 2004.

January 4th, 2005


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