Mysteries at the Museum: The American adding machine | Opinion

For most of human history the act of adding numbers together was a learned task. There were early adding devices like an abacus or even some mechanical devices invented by scientist or clockmakers, but it would take the American industrial revolution to finally produce a marketable (although generally not very reliable) adding machine. At first the designs required the user to insert a stylus into the machine to move gears and wheels. Later versions had a column of slots for each digit to be entered. The most successful of this later version was made by the American Can Company. Number 18,153 of their machine was purchased by the Brown Dixon Store in Jacksonville, TX sometime in 1913. The price then was $35.00, about $728.00 in 2017 money. The adding machine is almost cubic in shape about 9” in all directions and weighs 16 pounds. There is a brass label affixed to the front of the machine that reads,” AMERICAN ADDING MACHINE, American Can Company, Adding Machine Division, Chicago, ILL.” The machine they purchased, that still works, is on display in your Vanishing Texana Museum.

There are seven vertical rows of slots in the front cover of the adding machine with the digits from 0 to 9 (large and in black and white) and 9 to 0 (small and in red). The large digits are used for addition, the small ones for subtraction. A depression in the slot is pressed in at the location of each digit / number. There are levers at the bottom of the machine that move up. Numbers you want to add are set by placing your index finger in the corresponding slot and then raise the bottom lever by your thumb until it is stopped by your index finger. Once all the numbers are entered, the user then pulls down on a metal handle with a wooden knob on the right side of the machine. The calculation appears in seven windows atop the machine. When the calculation is complete, another handle on the right side is pulled to reset all digits to zeros. There is no CE (clear entry) button, so if the user made a mistake they had to zero out the machine and start over. The use of this machine in the Brown Dixon Store was sure to speed checkout and reduce errors, but was probably also an item of curiosity.

Because of its low price, the American Adding Machine was very popular for many years and production continued into the mid-1920’s when the American Can Company spun the business off. American Can was focused on buying up their competitors in the tin can business and became the largest manufacturer of tin cans (about 86% of the available market) in the United States before the government took action against the “Tin Can Trust.” It was part of the “Dow Jones Industrial Average” until 1987 when it became Primerica Financial, which would become the basis for the company we know today as Citigroup.

American Adding Machines lost favor over time after machines that printed the results on paper rolls became more affordable. Mechanical adding machines of any style were made obsolete with the introduction of the electronic calculator in the 1960’s. Pocket calculators became available in the 1970’s and today most of us just use an “app.” But where did the design of the calculator’s key board come from?

In 1914, when commercial mechanical calculators were just becoming practical, Oscar J. Sundstrand, founder of the Sundstrand Adding Machine Co., introduced the modern 10-key keyboard design with three rows and a zero key. In 1927, Sundstrand sold the rights to Underwood-Elliot Fisher Co. and worked for the company until 1949. Notice that your phone has a layout exactly opposite of the calculator key board. Phone company design engineers were concerned that people using a “touch tone phone” would dial faster than the phone company relays were capable of responding. To slow everyone down, they just reversed the calculator’s keyboard layout.

We hope you will visit your Vanishing Texana Museum for a demonstration of this incredible machine. If you can’t make here, there is another one on display in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute. Your museum is located at 300 South Bolton, just across from the old Discount City. You can’t miss our new sign! The museum is open from 11-4 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, but will be closed the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.

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