Felt & Tarrant - The Competitors


(the American Arithmometer Company - 1886-1905)
(the Burroughs Adding Machine Company - 1905-1953)
(the Burroughs Corporation - 1953-1986)

While competition among manufacturers for the office machine market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was keen, none was so brisk as that between Felt & Tarrant and Burroughs. Three battles would take place, with Burroughs winning the first, F&T winning the second and the final one a draw.

(Wm S. Burroughs) William S. Burroughs, an ex-bank clerk from St Louis, produced the first adding/listing machine and filed for a patent at almost the exact time that Felt had finished his prototype "macaroni box" Comptometer, January of 1885. For the next 15 years, a battle would rage between the businesses created by these similar but, fundamentally different, designs.

For an in-depth look at the development of the adding machine, be sure to check out James Redin's incisive analysis and Michael Hancock's historic reveiw at the Dotpoint website.

The first battle in this long-fought war commensed immediately and ended around 1902-3 when Felt appears to have finally given up trying to build a practical lister based on his key-driven design. Reading the available material has convinced this author that this effort was a tragic waste of Felt's design talents.

As Edwin Darby observed...

"On June 11, 1889, Felt was issued a patent for his second machine, the Comptograph. which was a listing machine. The Comptometer was not and is not a recording or listing machine; answers showed on window dials to be read off and entered into journals and other business papers. But the competing Burroughs machines did have a printout. The first Comptographs were not particularly successful in that, although they were key-driven, a second and cumbersome lever motion was necessary to actuate the printing unit. Later Felt switched to the key-set, two-motion system for his Comptograph and the machine had good sales, particularly in Europe."

We will probably never know the exact circumstances that drove Felt to devote himself so doggedly to this quest. Certainly when he started, it wasn't clear that the double motion necessary to imprint the amount would prove an insurmountable obstacle. It is likely that Felt gradually sensed this design limitation at some earlier point but was spurred on by the sizable market for lister/adders. Also, there seems little doubt that Bob Tarrant pressed him to continue his efforts as Darby continues...
"Increasingly, the Felt & Tarrant partnership became an uneasy one. The older Tarrant was cautious while Felt, a combination dreamer and hardheaded businessman, was full steam ahead. Finally in 1902 they agreed to go their separate ways-almost. Tarrant would take the Comptograph and Felt would take the Comptometer.

"Two companies were formed where each man would control one and participate in the profits of both. Felt got 51 percent of Felt & Tarrant while Tarrant would control a like percentage of the Comptograph Co. This arrangement worked well until World War I killed off the main source of Comptograph revenues, the sales in Europe. The Comptograph, its plant and assets, were reabsorbed by Felt & Tarrant and the business liquidated. Felt was uninterested in trying to revive the machine since it was cumbersome, very heavy and more expensive than the Comptometer and in need of a drastic redesign. Too, the competition was concentrating on the recording end of the business."

Thus ended the first battle in the long-running war between Felt and the Burroughs Corp. A look at the record confirms that Felt was issued no less than 13 patents on various "lister machine" designs between 1889 and 1904. During that time, he received only two other patents applicable to the Comptometer, one of which would play a dominant role in the next battle.

The second battle covered a relatively brief but intense period around 1911-1914. Just as Felt & Tarrant perceived the adder/lister market as fair game, the powers-that-be at the Burroughs Corporation were well aware of the profitable niche that the Comptometer had captured.

(Burroughs calc) F&T's original patents were expiring and while some improvements had been made since the original 1887 patent, most of Felt's design efforts had been directed toward the Comptograph. This was an opening that Burroughs would now seek to exploit at the expense of their arch-rival.

In early 1912, two patents were granted to Burroughs covering some unique enhancements to the expired Felt patents and providing the foundation for their line of calculators. Incredibly, it was decided to package the machine in a case of almost identical appearance to the Comptometer! One can only speculate that they expected or, at least hoped, to benefit from the reputation that Felt & Tarrant had earned in the market for key-driven calculators.

From Mary Elizabeth Schmidt (nee Koch, granddaughter of the inventor)...

"I do know that there were problems with Burroughs right from the beginning. They often tried to use our name calling their machine the Burroughs Comptometer."

When these machines appeared, there was immediate consternation at Felt & Tarrant. The obvious defense was a full-press legal offensive in the form of a lawsuit alleging violation of Felt's patent on his metal case. This patent (733,379) had been issued in mid 1903 and was not due to expire for another 8 or 9 years.

While the details of the court case are not crystal clear, it would seem that the similarities in appearance were so striking and obvious that a favorable judgement was rendered forthwith. It is thot that Burroughs was ordered to recall and destroy all "shoebox" models, altho the mechanisms may have been salvaged.

With production halted (and a possible recall in process), a redesigned case with rounded corners and a flatter overall appearance was substituted. As it turned out, the case wasn't to matter much anyway as we shall see. So ended the second battle.

(Burroughs calc2) The final battle with Burroughs was to extend far beyond Felt's life and well into the second half of the 20th century. With the "case-case" behind them, Burroughs would now establish itself as F&T's primary competitor in a battle for the key-driven calculator market. Both of these workhorse backoffice calculators would eventually be displaced, first by tabulators and finally by the widespread use of computers. Felt & Tarrant morphed into the Comptometer Corporation only to be absorbed by the Victor Adding Machine Company in 1961 after failing to successfully diversify following WWII.

Burroughs continued as a dominant force in office machines having accumulated some 450 separate products as early as the mid 1930s. When the behemoth computers of the 1950s appeared, they moved aggressively into that field as well and was considered by many to have products far superior to their competitors. However, the market dominance by IBM in mainframe computers would lead Burroughs to merge with Sperry Rand as UNISYS Corp in 1986. But that's another story.

Mechanical Accountant

(the Mechanical Accountant Company - 1902-192?)

This little known competitor appeared on the key-driven calculator scene around 1902. Located in Providence, RI and producing what is probably the earliest key-driven machine with two registers, it seems to have survived until at least the mid 1920s. Very little is known about model or serial number chronology or the history of the company.

(Mechanical Accountant) Our only sources of information are the American Digest of Business Machines and Martin. Apparantly the side mounted short-stroke clearing lever would zero both dial-sets, each of which was protected from external contaminants by a clear, full-width, curved plastic piece. In contrast, both the Comptometer and Burroughs machines had their plastic protectors mounted beneath apertures in the register cover.

Both Martin and McCarthy tell us that the upper set of dials was for the "last item set up on the keyboard" while a bar at the bottom of the keyboard is for clearing the "register dials only". Unfortunately, this last seems to be in error. We have it from Larry Wilheim who has two of these rarities...
"...the bar across the bottom clears the individual item or top dial."

In discussing this machine, Martin states flatly "the designer is J.A.V.Turck" who joined Felt & Tarrant at some point before 1913. How this competitor managed to stay in business well into the 1920s producing so few machines and without their original designer seems a mystery.

the non-listers

The Comptometer, the Burroughs calculator and the Mechanical Accountant seem to constitute the entirity of commercially viable key-driven calculators. There are two other machines that, in theory at least, were competitors of the Comptometer. These machines had a keyset mechanism and, like true adding machines, required a handle pull with each value entered.

By omitting the complex and expensive printing mechanism, a keyset machine could be made and sold for less money than either a true adding machine or the more complex key-driven Comptometer. Two machines appeared, one by Barrett prior to 1913 and another by Victor in 1919, While cheap to produce, they found little acceptance in the marketplace as we shall see.


(the Barrett Adding Machine Company - pre-1913-1930s)

Barrett Barrett produced their non-lister in 6- and 10-column versions. Complemetary subtraction digits were on a narrow metal strip on the right of the keyboard, thereby allowing the use of standardized keytops having only the single larger digits. The upper left corner key was used to enter all 9s into the the machine, probably preparatory to a subtraction operation.

A 6-column "messanine attachment" was offered for the 10-column model that provided a way to multiply Apparantly one of the values would be set into the attachment and the lever pulled for the number of units of the other value, the attachment shifted left one column and the lever pulled for the tens value, etc. While it made multiplying on a keyset machine possible, it was certainly not as efficient as a Comptometer for multiplying. This rather strange non-lister was probably not a big seller, either.


(the Victor Adding Machine Company - 1918-1961)
(the Victor Comptometer Corp - 1961-1986)

(Oliver David Johantgen) Victor was formed in 1918 around Oliver D. Johantgen's ideas for a new lightweight calculator. Carl Buehler, sole owner of a chain of some 100 midwestern meat markets, thinking he was buying a machine, instead ended up with $100 worth of stock and stormed into a shareholders' meeting to get his money back. Discovering that he was the only "deep-pockets" businessman present and becoming convinced of the value of Johantgen's design, he soon took control of the company with the approval of all.

But while Carl Buehler was a smart and successful businessman, he knew nothing about calculators or adding machines. His son Albert (later called A.C.) however, at 21 years of age, seemed just right for the job of running this new concern. The elder Buehler installed him as a V.P. and within a few years, A.C. was running the company as he would for the rest of his life.

But its the machine, not the company or its CEO that is of interest here. So, again we turn to Edwin Darby who describes the early design...

"Johantgen and his associates had originally decided to build a simpler, less costly 'non-listing adding' machine. As the keys were depressed and the handle pulled, dials moved figures in front of a window much like a speedometer."

(Victor 110) So it would appear that this first model (the 110) was a "key-set" design requiring a handle pull for each entry. In effect, it was a "lister" without the listing equipment. Apparantly very few of these machines were ever sold and Victor moved swiftly into production of a lister model. While Darby reports that the earliest listers carried the same model number as the non-lister (110), a careful examination of one of the earliest examples reveals no model designation whatever. Accordingly, the first lister model is here considered to be the Model 210.

Victor went on to establish a major presense in the low end of the adding machine market becoming a significant competitor for Burroughs but not Felt & Tarrant. Victor's merger with the remnants of the ailing Comptometer Corp. some 40 years later was an ironic twist for a company that was never a serious threat to the Comptometer.

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