William Seward Burroughs I

William S. Burroughs.
An early Burroughs adding machine
Patent no. 388,116 on a "calculating machine".

William Seward Burroughs I (January 28, 1857 – September 14, 1898) was an American inventor born in Rochester, New York.[1][2]

Life and career

Personal life

Burroughs was the son of a mechanic and worked with machines throughout his childhood. While he was still a small boy, his parents moved to Auburn, New York, where he and his brothers were educated in the public school system.

He married his wife, Ida (née Selover) in 1879. They had two sons and two daughters: Jennie, Horace, Mortimer (father of William S. Burroughs II), and Helen.[1]


In 1882, he started working as a clerk in a bank. Much of his job consisted of long hours reviewing ledgers for errors.[1] At this time Burroughs became interested in solving the problem of creating an adding machine. In the bank, there had been a number of earlier prototypes, but in inexperienced users' hands, those that existed would sometimes give incorrect, and at times outrageous, answers. The clerk work was not in accordance with Burroughs' wishes, for he had a natural love and talent for mechanics, and the boredom and monotony of clerical life weighed heavily upon him. Seven years in the bank damaged his health, and he was forced to resign.

In the beginning of the 1880s (1880-1882), Burroughs was advised by a doctor to move to an area with a warmer climate and he moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he obtained a job in the Boyer Machine Shop. These new surroundings, which appealed to him more, hastened the development of the idea he had already in his mind, and the tools of his new craft gave him the opportunity to put into tangible form the first conception of the adding machine. Accuracy was the foundation of his work. No ordinary materials were good enough for his creation. His drawings were made on metal plates which could not expand or shrink by the smallest fraction of an inch. He worked with hardened tools, sharpened to fine points, and when he struck a center or drew a line, it was done under a microscope.

So, he invented a "calculating machine" (first patent filed in 1885) designed to ease the monotony of clerical work. By 1890, the machines were well known in the banking industry, and adoption was spreading.[3][4]

He was a founder of the American Arithmometer Company (1886). After his death, partner John Boyer moved the company forward after renaming it the Burroughs Adding Machine Company (1904).

He was awarded the Franklin Institute's John Scott Legacy Medal shortly before his death.[1] He was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[2] He was the grandfather of Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs and great-grandfather of William S. Burroughs Jr., who was also a writer.

Burroughs also received a patent for an electric alarm clock in 1892.[5]

He died in Citronelle, Mobile County, Alabama[2][6] and was interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.


  • U.S. Patent 388,116 Calculating-machine. Filed January 1885, issued August 1888.
  • U.S. Patent 388,117 Calculating-machine. Filed August 1885, issued August 1888.
  • U.S. Patent 388,118 Calculating-machine. Filed March 1886, issued August 1888.
  • U.S. Patent 388,119 Calculating-machine. Filed November 1887, issued August 1888.
  • Electric alarm clock. Issued February 1892.[5]
  • Calculating machine. Issued week ending September 5, 1893[2][7]


  1. ^ a b c d "Case Files: William S. Burroughs". The Franklin Institute. 2016-04-27. Retrieved 2019-06-30.
  2. ^ a b c d "William Seward Burroughs | The National Inventors Hall of Fame". www.invent.org. Retrieved 2019-06-30.
  3. ^ "Items of Interest". Retrieved 2019-06-30 – via Newspapers.com open access.
  4. ^ "MISSING LINKS". Newspapers.com. Retrieved 2019-06-30.
  5. ^ a b "Patents and Trade-marks: Issued to Southwestern Inventors During the Past Week". Newspapers.com. Retrieved 2019-06-30.
  6. ^ "With the Courts". Retrieved 2019-06-30 – via Newspapers.com open access.
  7. ^ "Western Inventors: List of Patents Recently Granted to Western Men". Retrieved 2019-06-30 – via Newspapers.com open access.

External links