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The Remarkable History of the Dalton Adding Machine

In the early 20th century, adding machines revolutionized business and finance, automating calculations and saving countless hours of manual work. And one of the key players in this mechanical calculation arms race was the Dalton Adding Machine Company, led by tenacious businessman James Lewis Dalton.

While not an inventor himself, Dalton played an instrumental role in bringing the Dalton adding machine to market, battling patent disputes and scaling production to make it one of the top brands of its era before merging into what would become Remington Rand. It‘s a fascinating story of entrepreneurship, engineering ingenuity, and the dawn of office automation. And for collectors, vintage Daltons and rival Burroughs machines remain some of the most sought-after examples of early computing technology.

From Missouri Merchant to Adding Machine Mogul

James L. Dalton‘s path to the adding machine business was an unlikely one. Born in 1866, Dalton was already a successful merchant and public figure in Poplar Bluff, Missouri by the turn of the century. He owned the largest department store in the Midwest, served in the state legislature, and held leadership roles in the Masonic Lodge.[^1] [^1]: "James L. Dalton," Montgomery County Historical Society, accessed May 10, 2023,

But Dalton had a knack for spotting opportunities. In 1901, he was approached by inventors William and Hubert Hopkins, who needed financing to produce their adding machine design. Dalton was intrigued by Hubert‘s demonstration of a 10-key prototype. So in June 1902, Dalton and associates invested $2,500 (over $80,000 today) into the Hopkins venture.[^2] [^2]: James T. Redin, "The Dalton Adding Machine," The Office, December 1926, 512-513.

By September 1902, the Hopkins brothers had a working model. In December, the Addograph Manufacturing Company was incorporated in St. Louis, with 50,000 shares split between the Hopkins and Dalton groups. James Dalton served as president, with Hubert Hopkins as factory manager.[^3] [^3]: "Addograph Manufacturing Company," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 21, 1902, 40.

However, the partnership quickly soured. In early 1903, Hubert Hopkins secretly sold his Addograph stake to American Arithmometer, the parent company of Burroughs Adding Machine. With a controlling interest, they now held sway over the Addograph patents (filed by Hopkins in January 1903), threatening Dalton‘s investment.[^4] [^4]: Hubert Hopkins, "Adding Machine," U.S. Patent 1,039,130, filed January 17, 1903, and issued September 24, 1912.

To regain control, Dalton was forced to pay American Arithmometer a steep $40,000 (over $1.2 million today) for the shares Hopkins had sold them for just $5,000. It was a bitter pill but granted Dalton the rights to make and sell the machines. In July 1903, he reorganized the venture as the Adding Typewriter Company, later renamed Dalton Adding Machine.[^5] [^5]: "Dalton Figuring Machine: Poplar Bluff Man Sells Nine-tenths of His Patent for $40,000," Poplar Bluff Weekly Citizen, July 10, 1903, 7.

Building an Adding Machine Empire

Now at the helm, James Dalton threw himself into the business. He gradually handed off his department store to focus full-time on adding machines. Dalton assumed the roles of "president, general manager, factory manager, timekeeper, paymaster, bookkeeper and chief salesman," working marathon days to get the company off the ground.[^6] [^6]: Redin, "The Dalton Adding Machine," 513.

The early years took grit. The first machines were built in a side room by a handful of mechanics, who relied on Dalton closing sales to get paid. But Dalton‘s persistence paid off. The first Dalton adding machine models launched in 1907, with a major advertising push in 1909 making them a sensation.

Innovative features set Daltons apart. Some models had glass sides showcasing the mechanical calculation process. The 10x10x10 keyboard layout was more efficient than rival interfaces. Dual registers enabled complex multi-step calculations. Direct subtraction and straight-line number printing improved accuracy and legibility over competitors like Burroughs.[^7] [^7]: "Dalton Adding, Listing and Calculating Machine," Scientific American, August 9, 1913, 115.

As demand surged, Dalton scaled up manufacturing. In 1909, the company moved into a larger purpose-built factory in Poplar Bluff. At its height in the mid-1920s, Dalton had 200 sales offices worldwide, 2,500 employees, and over $1 million in monthly revenue. The product line grew to over 150 models with prices ranging from $125 to $800. More than 50,000 machines were sold in total.[^8] [^8]: "Dalton Adding Machine Company," The Reckoner, September 1927, 10-11.

Dalton‘s advanced features made it a go-to for heavy-duty business needs. Major banks, insurance companies, government offices, and manufacturers relied on Dalton machines for everything from payroll to financial reporting. By 1919, the U.S. government alone had over 3,000 Daltons in use.[^9]

[^9]: "Uncle Sam Has an Eye on Figures," The Syracuse Herald, December 28, 1919, 15.

Dalton vs. Burroughs: A Fierce Rivalry

While Dalton emerged as a top player, Burroughs remained the market leader. Founded in the 1880s, Burroughs had a sizable head start. By 1908, it had sold 20 times more machines than Dalton. This scale advantage kept Burroughs more affordable, with prices as low as $175 in the 1910s.[^10] [^10]: "The Adding Machine Industry," System: The Magazine of Business, March 1916, 311-312.

But Dalton held some technical advantages, as seen in this comparison of popular 1910s models:

Specification Dalton Model 181-3 Burroughs Class 3
Keyboard 10x10x10 9x9x9
Registers 2 1
Subtraction Direct Complementary
Printing Straight line Haphazard
Price (1915) $600 $400

The battle for customers was fierce. Burroughs and Dalton traded barbs in advertisements, each claiming superiority. In 1905, Dalton even sued Burroughs for patent infringement and anti-competitive practices. Though unsuccessful, it underscored the intensity of their rivalry.[^11] [^11]: "Dalton Adding Machine Company v. Burroughs Adding Machine Company," The Federal Reporter, vol. 223, 1915, 458.

The Dawn of Office Automation

The competition between Dalton and Burroughs wasn‘t just about their balance sheets. It was a race to transform office work itself. By replacing error-prone mental calculation, adding machines made bookkeeping vastly more efficient and reliable.

Dalton, Burroughs, and rivals like Comptometer and Monarch created a new class of office equipment – and new job descriptions to go with them. "Adding machine operator" became an in-demand role, often filled by women entering white-collar work.[^12] [^12]: Margery Davies, "Woman‘s Place Is at the Typewriter: The Feminization of the Clerical Labor Force," Radical America, July-August 1974, 10-11.

These early calculators paved the way for the explosion of office machines to come. From the 1920s onward, mechanical calculators gave way to electric models and then electronic computers. But many of the interface concepts originated by Dalton and Burroughs – like the 10-key pad – lived on.

In a sense, Dalton helped lay the groundwork for our modern digital age. Its machines demonstrated the huge efficiency gains and analytical power of automated computation. And its meteoric growth showcased the immense market demand for faster, better number-crunching tools.

The Dalton Legacy and Collector Appeal Today

Sadly, James Dalton didn‘t live to see the full arc of the adding machine revolution he helped spark. He died suddenly of appendicitis in 1926 at age 60. Without its leader, Dalton Adding Machine was acquired by Remington Typewriter Company. In 1927, it merged into the iconic Remington Rand office equipment conglomerate.[^13] [^13]: "James L. Dalton," Annals of Butler County Missouri, vol. 2, 1937, 160-167.

Production of Dalton machines continued into the 1930s before being phased out. Meanwhile, Burroughs held its lead, producing adding machines and early computers into the electronic era. The Burroughs Corporation eventually merged with Sperry to form Unisys in 1986.

Today, Dalton and Burroughs machines are prized among collectors and math enthusiasts. Working Daltons can fetch anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $1,000 depending on model and condition. Glass-sided versions showcase the inner workings and make stunning display pieces.

Notable Dalton models and their typical collector prices include:

  • Model 181 (c. 1914): $800-1,200
  • Model 182 (c. 1915): $600-1,000
  • Model 112 (c. 1922): $400-700
  • Model 181-6 with glass sides (c. 1925): $1,000-1,500+

Burroughs machines have a slight edge in collector value due to their earlier vintage and larger production runs. Choice models can command well north of $2,000 in pristine shape. The 1920s "portable" Burroughs are especially coveted, often selling for $800-1,500 or more.

But for many collectors, the appeal goes beyond dollars and cents. It‘s about owning a piece of computing history. These ingenious mechanical marvels represent the dawn of the office machine age and the birth of automated calculation.

Holding a Dalton, you can imagine James Dalton inspecting those first hand-built prototypes. The Dalton story is a testament to entrepreneurial vision – and the power of technology to transform work and society. Not bad for an ambitious Missouri merchant who saw the future in a clever new calculating contraption.