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Combination:Calculating Machine and Printer, 1897

To Err is Human

William S. Burroughs was born on January 28, 1857 in the state of New York. He married Ida Selover in 1879, with whom he would have four children: Jennie, Horace, Mortimer, and Helen. In 1882, he was twenty-five and living with his family in the city of Auburn, NY. As a bank clerk, he was troubled by the long hours he spent pouring over bank legers in search of errors, and the equally long hours he devoted to guarding against such errors. He was convinced that many other clerks and bookkeepers must encounter the same difficulty, and so he started thinking about how the problem might be solved. In the meantime, Burroughs' failing health prompted his doctors to order him to find a warmer climate and a more active occupation. He obligingly moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, and took up engineering. His newly-acquired technical know-how, combined with his familiarity with banks and balance sheets, gave him the ability to produce the first office adding machine.

Pictured below is an excerpt from a thank you letter sent to The Franklin Institute by Burroughs in the period following his receipt of the John Scott Legacy Medal. The text reads as follows: "You will perhaps recall the fact, that, several times you had previously written to me requesting a description of my machine. So highly did I value the honor you were able to confer that I repeatedly declined the same, until such a time as I should be fully satisfied as to its perfect working and full establishment." These words, written in Burroughs' own hand, offer a personal illustration of their author's anxiety over accuracy.


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