1942 adding machines: a marvel of non-essential zero elimination!

This 1942 ad for a Comptometer mechanical adding machine celebrates the joy of spending hours every day doing what spreadsheets today accomplish in an eyeblink. I love the feature-list: no glare dials, the elimination of non-essential zeroes, and a marvellous "Keystroke Censor."

Collier's January 17, 1942


    1. What’s funny is that in 2080 (69 years from now) someone will run something like this about the iPad

      Its more likely that people in 2080 will chuckle over advertisements for things which we never expected to be automated. “Your new Toyota corolla has super fast throttle response and precise steering”. Why didn’t 2011 people just use a micro-controller for that? Did they sit still for hours driving their vehicles? What a waste of a life!

  1. The ad appeared roughly five weeks after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. This young man’s hoped-for ascent up the business ladder was about to be interrupted for several years: he would be trading in his office, his work clothes, and his Comptometer for an Army barracks, a uniform, and a rifle.

  2. Two things:

    First, that address given in the ad is, nowadays, the epicenter of yuppie condo-land in Chicago. Million dollar town homes, many of them gutted from old industrial spaces which likely used to house businesses like this one.

    Second, my Mom worked for Sears in the 70’s and 80’s as an insurance rep. I remember her describing, in almost lurid detail, how they unveiled their desktop computers with word-processing and spread-sheet (I believe it was an early version of AsEasyAs) to the gasps of her co-workers. One woman was over-come and actually cried, saying how this would “change her life, changer her whole life.”

    I imagine that 20+ years late this same woman saw an iPhone and simply burst into flames.

    1. Don’t get me wrong. I love your comment about the woman catching fire. I just want to point out what computers meant to people who grew up without them.

      The advent of the iPhone, for me, just meant I no longer needed to carry a phone and an iPod. It was not a life-changer the way the Apple ][ was. For someone who finds it impossible to transcribe numbers accurately, or even to keep columns of hand-written numbers in order (making long-division impossible), the spreadsheet and the word processor did change everything.

      My story: http://www.woz.org/letters/general/98.html

  3. At least one of these was still in weekly use into the 1980’s. The church I when to as a child used one. I could hear it operating from my Sunday school room next door, it was a really pleasant sound, kind of a clicking mechanical whir.

  4. My grandmother was very proud to say that she was a comptometer operator. She quit school at after 7th grade and later learned to use the comptometer. She was doing this somewhere between 1914 and 1929. She worked in NY and liked to tell how she found mistakes that others missed.

    I didn’t know that there was a silent p in comptometer.

  5. my mother used one of these from the 30s to the late 60`s. i still have the machine. i`d like to take it apart because there has to be millions of steampunk parts but i can`t because it`s my moms.

  6. Spreadsheets, lightning fast… so why are so many people still slaving over them pressing keys all day long?

    The Curta calculator is just too cute-a !

  7. Your spreadsheet performs calculations at the blink of a eye! You really need to upgrade your computer.

  8. Calculators changed a lot in the 35 years from 1942 to when I bought my Lloyds Accumatic 320 digital ‘pocket’ calculator in 1976. In the 35 years since, they haven’t changed much at all. I still use the Lloyds because of the large bright green display and big keys.

    1. Rossindetroit: I understand why you still use your ’76 Lloyds. I still use the hp 41 i bought in 1983. We learned to think before computers were marketed to do it (badly) for us. Long live 1970’s technology.

  9. To echo IamInnocent, it takes about the same amount of time to open an email now as it did 20 years ago. Of course then it was all ASCII plain text and today some people can’t send a message without background images, graphic doodads, animated attachments, fancy fonts and rich text.

    It took two weeks to design and 410 days to construct the Empire State Building, and that was in the early 1930s. How long would a similar project take today?

    Also check out the cool Comptometer pins…

    And don’t diss the elimination of non-essential zeros. 0000000003.000 out of 0000000004.000 people think it makes it easier to read.

  10. According to the Wiki article, the Comptometer (now a generic word) was actually a very fast adding system, faster than electronic calculators, because the operator could press multiple buttons at one time. It had 8 columns of 10 keys, so a number like “3000” could easily be entered simultaneously, in a fraction of a second. It sounds cool! This is why they remained in use even after the appearance of the electronic calculator. Maybe I’ll see if there are some on ebay…

    As you say in the article, now, with spreadsheets, the whole thing is obsolete. I use OpenOffice Calc all the time and it certainly lets me get together a proposal at high speed. Something that would require a full-time adding person is now done automatically.

    That’s not entirely for the good.

    You can see from this ad that taking a computer (adding) job was an entry-level position that anyone could do, but it could lead to bigger and better things. We have fewer entry-level jobs like that.

  11. Don’t knock the elimination of non-essential zeroes. Some of us are old enough to have worked both hand-written spread sheets and adding machines which required every number to have the same amount of digits in order to be added up correctly.

    mgfarrelly, I agree with you: the area around that address was completely gentrified in the 1980s, literally causing all of the original neighbors to have to move out in a relatively short period of time. I was party to some of the local groups unsuccessfully trying to get property tax relief so that families could hang onto their homes in the wake of this wholesale take-over of the neighborhood. It went from Latino families to artists to trust fund babies to hipsters in general in a matter of a few years. One of the more abrupt neighborhood transitions I’ve ever seen.

  12. A few comments from an old guy:

    a. Comptometers were not just adding machines. Ten-key adding machines which, unlike Comptometers, produced a printed tape were good-enough for adding and did not require special training. Comptometers were capable of multiplication, division and accumulation as well as addition and subtraction.

    b. Comp operators (most of them female) required training and were well paid for their skills. They were fast and accurate.

    c. All large auditing firms used Comp operators to check the completed worksheets of accountants. The operators would rubber stamp “Comptometer checked” with their initials.

    d. Curta calculators were used by professionals who worked in remote areas without electric service: geologists, surveyors, field engineers, etc.

    1. aculeus: In ’82 my first job as a chainman on a survey crew was working for a guy that still used a Curta, because he didn’t own a calculator. He was a foul tempered bastard but he could extract a square root on one. I can still hear that coffee grinder figuring cut sheets – that i checked on a (then) state-of-the-art RPN programmable.

  13. Well said, #7.

    The first 35 years you mention included the Apollo program. This brought the world unprecedented advances in electronics and miniaturization, thanks largely to a redoubling of the USA’s efforts in math and science education.

    Your second 35 years witnessed the ascent of a US alliance among robber barons, religious fanatics, and conservative politicians. These “leaders,” realizing that educated people tend to be progressive, methodically dismantled the US public education system.

    We now have legislators in Washington who declare that climate change can’t possibly affect us, since God said he wouldn’t flood the world again after Noah’s adventure. The state of education is such that alleged citizens actually VOTE for these people. Doesn’t that make you want to stand up and bray yew!ess!ay!?

  14. Comptometers were a big boost to small businesses, too – when I was a kid in the late ’50s, I was fascinated by watching the two operators in my father’s business, those accounting people had amazing skills with those things. I imagine the repairs were as complicated as working on a Ferrari V12, but they were built like small tanks.

  15. My dad had a Comptometer in the basement for years when I was growing up. It really was a pretty cool machine. Of course, we used to love putting in all 9’s and then adding 1.

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