Skip to main content

Time Machine

March 2023
1min read

“It was near Thanksgiving Day of 1884,” wrote Dorr E. Felt, “and I decided to use the holiday in the construction of the wooden model. I went to the grocer’s and selected a box which seemed to me to be about the right size for the casing. It was a macaroni box. For keys I procured some meat skewers from a hardware store for the key guides and an assortment of elastic bands to be used for springs. When Thanksgiving Day came I got up early and went to work with a few tools, principally a jack knife.”

But to his frustration Felt “soon discovered that there were some parts which would require better tools than I had at hand.” This is scarcely surprising, for the twenty-two-year-old mechanic was building a calculating machine. Nor is it surprising that “when night came I found that the model I had expected to construct in a day was a long way from being complete.” What is surprising is that Felt stuck with his scheme and within two months had produced—still in the original macaroni-box casing—the world’s first operative multiple-order, key-driven calculating machine. He named it the Comptometer, and it is an indication of his success that of the eight units he laboriously pieced together in the next year and a half, one was immediately grabbed by the New York State Weather Bureau, and one by Gen. W. S. Rosecrans, the registrar of the Treasury.

Felt’s machine was so successful that no rival dared venture into the market until 1902.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "October/November 1984"

Authored by: Bruce Catton

The Great Lakes hurricane of 1913 was a destructive freak. As far as lakers were concerned, it was …

Authored by: Charles E. Rosenberg

American medicine in a crucial era was at once surprisingly similar and shockingly different from what we know today. You could get aspirin at the drugstore, and anesthesia during surgery. But you could also buy opium over the counter, and the surgery would be more likely to be performed in your kitchen than in a hospital.

Authored by: Oliver E. Allen

Americans have never been so healthy, thanks to advances in medical technology and research. Now we have to learn to deal with the staggering costs.

Authored by: William Bennett

How a favorite local charity of Boston’s Brahmins—parochial and elite—grew into one of our great democratic medical institutions

Authored by: Robert B. Brown

America has won more Nobel Prizes in medicine than any other nation: it’s easy when you have the money, the technology, and people from every other nation

Authored by: Bernard A. Weisberger

A disease that no one understood laid waste a major American city. Five thousand died in two months, and Memphis was never the same again.

Authored by: The Editors

How our wartime experience conquered a wide range of problems from hemorrhagic shock to yellow fever

Authored by: The Editors

Here is how political cartoonists have sized up the candidates over a tumultuous half-century.

Authored by: Carol Mcd. Wallace

Peter Marié, a bon vivant of the Gilded Age, asked hundreds of Society’s prettiest women to allow themselves to be painted for him alone

Authored by: The Editors

While the Wright Brothers experimented at Kitty Hawk, a photographer named William Jennings believed he and his friends were making aviation history

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.