A Vintage Sound For Tax Day: The Clack Of An Adding Machine

Apr 15, 2013
Originally published on April 15, 2013 10:02 pm
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We asked listeners to send sounds from older technologies, things that have faded away but are missed. Katherine Coles of Phoenix sent us memories of adding machines.


KATHERINE COLES: When I was a little girl, my mom was a bookkeeper for my dad's business and she did the work from home so the sound of her using the adding machine was a constant in our house. I can remember her sitting in the dining room at the table with her ledger book spread all around her, working on the machine, being amazed that she could put the numbers in without ever looking at it, doing it by touch.

So for me, an adding machine, it exemplifies my mother's attention to detail and something that stays with me today. And just thinking about the sound brings me a lot of comfort.



We wanted to find the person who invented the modern replacement for that vintage sound. It turns out it was a team effort and one member of that team lives in Dallas. He recalls that the device that put adding machines and even slide rules in the dustbin of history brought other innovations. They changed how we recharged batteries and they introduced thermal printing, using heat sensitive paper instead of ink.

JERRY MERRYMAN: My name is Jerry Merryman. I spent most of my career at Texas Instruments where I authored several dozen pens, the most important one being for the first electronic handheld calculator. It was late 1965 and Jack Kilby, my boss, presented the idea of a calculator. He called some people in his office. He says, we'd like to have some sort of computing device, perhaps to replace the slide ruler. It would be nice if it were as small as this little book that I have in my hand.

Of course, it would have to operate on batteries and it would have to have some buttons to enter the problem and it would have to have some neon lights or something like that to give you an answer. You have to think of something. Silly me, I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution. It was a very intense effort. It touched many things that I'm reminded of today.

We used thermal printing. It was one of the earliest uses of rechargeable batteries. I remember winding the transformer in my garage for the little disc-sized transformer that you plugged in the wall and charged your batteries. So today, I see many reminders of that. If I push a button on a cell phone or charge a battery from a wall outlet or if I just get a thermally printed receipt from a grocery store, it certainly brings back memories of that intense effort in 1965.

SIEGEL: That's Jerry Merryman who helped invent the handheld calculator along with two colleagues. He was responsible for the keyboard design. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.