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Comptometer: Macaroni Box Calculator

By Neal McChristy

In an age of innovation as was the 19th century, the Comptometer, the first calculator with a keyboard, originated from a device that was made of a macaroni box, meat skewers, staples and rubber bands.

Janette Woolard, Jackson, Miss., has a Comptometer dating from about 1920. "In 1954, my husband, who had been discharged from the Air Force, accepted a job with Omaha Production Company of Omaha, Neb., for $200 a month," Woolard wrote. "A few years later, Vickers purchased Omaha Production and upgraded their equipment, replacing the Comptometers with calculators. The employees were allowed to take home the obsolete equipment, so my husband brought home this Comptometer."

Adding machines dated from over two centuries before the invention of the Comptometer, with the first adding machine invented by Wilhelm Schickard in 1623, which was destroyed in a fire. Blaise Pascal placed his name on the invention of an adding/subtracting type machine in 1642.

The Comptometer was invented by Dorr E. Felt (1862-1930) of Chicago as the first calculator with a keyboard in 1885. The machine was marketed beginning in 1887.

The invention of the Comptometer has a colorful history. According to The Origin of Modern Calculating Machines, by J.A.V. Turck, in Dorr Eugene Felt's own words:

"It was near Thanksgiving Day of 1884, and I decided to use the holiday in the construction of the wooden model. I went to the grocer's and selected a box which seemed to be about the right size for the casing.

"It was a macaroni box, so I have always called it the macaroni box model. For keys, I procured some meat skewers from the butcher around the corner and some staples from a hardware store for the key guides, and an assortment of elastic bands to be used for springs. When Thanksgiving Day came, I got (home) early and went to work with a few tools, principally a jackknife.

"I soon discovered that there were some parts which would require better tools than I had at hand for that purpose, and when night came, I found that the model I had expected to construct in a day was a long way to be complete or in working order. I finally had some of the parts made out of metal and finished the model soon after New Year's Day 1885."

The basic Comptometer was based on a "fast-carry mechanism that acted while the keys returned to their original state after being depressed," according to James Redin in A Brief History of Mechanical Calculators, Part III, "A detent toothed lever controlled the wheel momentum by bringing the wheel to a full stop."

The information by Redin states that Felt had completed his first metal prototype in 1886, and in March 1887, he applied for a patent. Then he started the Felt and Tarrant Manufacturing Company in partnership with Robert Tarrant. It was later to become the Comptometer Corporation, and in 1961, merged with the Victor Adding Machine Co. to form the Victor Comptometer Corporation.

The Comptometer was on the market for 40 years and had improvements made in that time. Fail-safe keys prevented a partial press from bringing up an error. With another improvement, an operator could press an unlimited number of keys at once, one in each column, which allowed some multiplication. The machines weighed 17-25 pounds and were priced between $300-$400.

Felt went on, in 1889, to invent the first printing desk calculator, the Comptograph. He also invented a model with a wide carriage in 1890.

Woolard used the Comptometer in her work in such vocations as a bookkeeper and buyer, and also as a merchandiser for a food distribution company.

"The Comptometers we had in our company had plastic cases and were smaller," Woolard said. She said she can do 10-key by touch and the Comptometer she has can do calculations just as quickly.

"Over the years," she said, "my sons played with this machine and I kept it through various moves between Omaha and Jackson, Miss."

(Editor's Note: If people are interested in the machine, please contact Janette Woolard at 1228 Woodfield Drive, Jackson, MS 39211 (601) 956-4590. The "macaroni box" Comptometer in the photograph is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.)

Comptometer information on the World Wide Web:

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