Bookkeeping Machines

A representative sample from the bookkeeping machines collection in the Division of Medicine and Science.

From the 14th century, a few European businesses kept careful written records of receipts and expenditures, compiling this information in ledger books and computing balances. These bookkeeping methods gradually diffused throughout Europe and, in the nineteenth century, to the United States.  With the advent and commercial diffusion of typewriters and adding machines, some of this work could be done by machine.

In the early 20th century, a few manufacturers began to sell adding typewriters. These allowed clerks to compute the sums required for invoices and receipts automatically and to type these documents. As time went on, more complex machines made it possible to calculate several columns of figures, to use data from one column as input into another, to produce several different forms from one machine, and to multiply. With the relaxation of the enforcement of antitrust legislation that occurred in the 1920s, adding machine manufacturer Burroughs, cash register maker NCR, and typewriter firms Remington and Underwood bought up earlier patents and offered new machines.

Bookkeeping machines were expensive and often built to order.  Many small businesses found it cheaper to stick with adding machines and human bookkeepers. For large retail firms, government offices, and many banks, bookkeeping machines promised the detailed, uniform, rapid recordkeeping they needed.

These machines also could be adopted for purposes quite different from keeping books.  The astronomer Leslie J. Comrie modified a National bookkeeping machine for use in computing tables of natural trigonometric functions at the British Nautical Almanac Office.  Hans Jurgensen, a tally clerk at the U.S. House of Representatives, envisioned and obtained a machine used in tabulating the votes of Congressmen.  

In addition to the machines mentioned here, accounting machines were manufactured by IBM and by Remington Rand that used punched cards for input. These are discussed with tabulating machines.  IBM, Remington Rand, Burroughs and NCR would all be early manufacturers of electronic computers.

In the following sections, bookkeeping machines are grouped in four families, reflecting the consolidation of various companies.