Objects in museum collections are signposts to diverse stories of invention. Patent dates on objects lead to patent numbers, and patents to inventor names and places of residence. Patents also were often reported in magazines, and advertisements for the resulting products offer further information. Accession files, genealogical records, newspaper accounts, and library catalogs all contribute additional—and often unexpected—details. For example, using such evidence, one can link several mathematical instruments in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) collections to nineteenth century American journalists.
In 1878, Ramón Verea of New York City patented a machine that would multiply two numbers together directly, rather than requiring repeated addition. The patent model of this machine survives in at NMAH. Direct multiplication of numbers using a machine was no small feat, and Verea’s work presaged a host of calculating machines. The model and its patent tag give no information about who Verea was, but further digging revealed that he was a Spanish-born free thinker who spent some time in Cuba and then founded one of the first Spanish language newspapers in New York City. He said that he had taken out his patent not because he hoped to develop a commercial product, but because he sought to prove that a Spaniard could invent as well as an American.1
Another nineteenth century journalist who took up invention had more success in commercializing his ideas. This was Charles Henry Webb, born in the state of New York in 1834, and active in New York City and in California as an author and editor as well as a journalist. Webb first patented an “adder” in 1868 and Lester C. Smith offered an improved version in 1889. These early devices would only add numbers up to sums of 4,999; then, in 1891, Webb patented a different form of adder that found totals of up to eight digits. It was closer in style to later adders, but did not sell well.2
During the present pandemic, however, a curator does not have easy access to the collections that are such a good source of suprising stories, like finding a connection between invention and journalism. Still, new leads have a tendency to emerge.
A speaker at the Lemelson Center’s symposium, Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives, for example, pointed to a 1913 booklet on African American inventors that mentions Detroit-born journalist and government employee Robert A. Pelham (1859–1943). These comments led me to look further. A lifelong Republican, Pelham was hired by the Detroit Daily Post and later founded his own newspaper, The Detroit Plaindealer. From 1887, he had a variety of jobs with the Michigan and then the US government. In 1900, he and his family moved to Washington, DC, where he became a clerk at the Bureau of the Census; he would remain there until his retirement in 1929.3
The Census was undergoing rapid change at the time Pelham arrived. The US Constitution mandates that the federal government count the population of the country every ten years, in order to fairly apportion seats in the US House of Representatives. Such counts began in 1790. With a growing population, enumeration lagged. Data from the 1880 Census was not entirely published until 1888. This encouraged the development of new machines to assist in the counting—these were used successfully from 1890 (for a discussion of the history of tabulating equipment, see http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object-groups/tabulating-equipment ).
At the same time, leaders sought data on a range of other topics and needed it more often than every ten years. Mindful of this demand, in 1902, the US Congress established the Bureau of the Census as a permanent agency. Demands for censuses of manufactures, of crop production (especially cotton), and of individual cities increased. By 1905, the Census also was developing its own laboratory where existing tabulating equipment was repaired and new designs were developed. Some who worked there, such as James Powers, would go on to establish their own businesses.
At least one census employee, Robert Pelham, had already been thinking about novel methods. Pelham had sought to work efficiently from early in his tenure at the Bureau. At the time, Census clerks were expected to tabulate 300–600 forms per day. A March 13, 1902, newspaper article reported that Pelham was tabulating 1,150 schedules in a day, with slightly more than a 1% error rate, surpassing the previous record of 908 forms in a day.4
Pelham was soon assigned to work compiling statistics on manufacturing. In this work, it was customary to make carbon copies of enumeration sheets, cut them up into slips and sort the slips so as to bring together the statistics for the businesses owned by individuals, companies, and corporations, as well as businesses having different values of products. The slips were then pasted together by hand. Pelham devised a “pasting apparatus” to speed this reassembly. The first form of Pelham’s invention consisted of “two cigar boxes, a wooden rolling pin, two wood screws, some curtain fixtures, a piece of tin and a small strip of sheet rubber.”5 By the time Pelham applied for a patent in September 1905, his model was much more elegant. The patent came promptly, granted on December 19 of the same year.6 The invention was adopted by the Bureau, saving considerable sums. Pelham also is credited with devising an improved tallying device in 1913, although this did not lead to a patent.
Pelham exhibited his inventions in August and September 1915 at the Lincoln Jubilee and Exhibition of Freedmen's Progress, a fair held in Chicago to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States.8 Demonstrating census equipment was not Pelham’s only role at the exhibition—he also took charge of displays by Howard University, the Howard University Alumni Association (he had received a law degree from Howard in 1904), and Capitol Consulting Co.9
In our age of widespread electronic data entry and calculation, it is not difficult to envision careers in computing and data processing. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such work was not widely known. All the inventors I have mentioned found regular employment in newspapers and publishing, where they were constantly exposed to new ideas, if not always computing technologies. Pelham came closest to working as a statistician in his career with the Bureau of the Census, but retained his interest in the world of journalism.
1 P. Kidwell, “Ideology and Invention: The Calculating Machine of Ramon Verea,” Rittenhouse, 9 (1995), pp. 33–41.
2 P. Kidwell, “The Webb Adder,” Rittenhouse 1 (1986), pp. 12-18.
3 Henry E. Baker, The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years, New York: Crisis Publishing Company, 1913, p. 8 (image of Pelham), 10. Later accounts of Pelham’s life rely heavily on Francis H. Warren, compiler, Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress, Detroit: Freedmen’s Progress Commission, 1915, pp 87-92. This includes a printed version of a letter from William M. Steuart [sic], chief statistician of the manufacturing division of the census, to S. N. A. North, Director of the Census, dated December 15, 1915.On Pelham’s retirement, see “Retires from government service after 28 years: Robert A. Pelham retires to devote entire time to research work and gathering and dissemination of race news,” January 12, 1929, The Pittsburgh Courier, p. 10.
4 “Speed of Tabulators in the Census Office,” The Washington Times, March 13, 1902, p. 4.
5 F. H. Warren, op. cit., p. 87.
6 Pelham, Robert A. Pasting apparatus. US Patent 807,685, filed September 14, 1905, and issued December 19, 1905.
7 F. H. Warren, op. cit., p. 89, 91.
8 The Richmond Planet, September 11, 1915, p. 8.