The Bentham Calculating Machine

Mary Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

In 1874 Letters Patent were granted to Moses and William Pullen‘of High Bentham, near Settle, in the County of York, for the Invention of a new or improved machine for adding together and ascertaining the total of a column or number of figures’. The patent was dated 4 June 1874, numbered 1948 and sealed on 1 December of that year. By the middle of 1875 the Lancaster Guardian of 5 June was reporting that the list of applications for shares in The Bentham Calculating Machine Company Limited would close on 16 June, the capital being £10,000 in 2000 shares of £5 each; and the paper printed a copy of the Prospectus.

The Prospectus emphasised that the machine was simple in construction and adaptable to any particular business. It was light, portable and elegant. It was adapted ‘to those to whom the process of addition is laborious and irksome, and it will not fail to be noticed that a little boy or girl may be employed to add up or check the totals of journals, ledgers, &c.’ One can only agree that ‘there are some persons whose brains are so active that nothing can exceed the rapidity with which they run up a column of figures, but even these soon tire, and their energies are impaired by excessive use, and they would act wisely in availing themselves of the assistance these Machines afford.’ Three forms of the machine were to be made, costing from half a guinea to four guineas.

A personal inspection of the works was invited, and the Lancaster Guardian’s correspondent Rambler took this up and reported:-

‘A manufactory for the making of calculating machines is a novel undertaking in a village like Bentham. Though this village has of late years made considerable advancement in shop and cottage improvements, still factory operations have been of slow growth. Not many years ago there were old men living who could remember when a portion of the present flax mill was occupied by an ancient corn-mill. Many persons still living can remember when there were large numbers of men and women employed in weaving linen, sailcloth, and sacking. There were weaving shops at the mill, the Square, Lairgill, and the Low End of the village, besides a number of private looms. Many of the farmers in Mewith and the higher portion of Tatham occupied their spare time in weaving for Bentham Mill. Weaving, hat and nail-making, and other local trades have passed away, and the only businesses which have sprung up since their decadence are the Bentham Gas Works, and Messrs. Pullen and Procter’s manufactory of calculating machines. The machine, which was invented by Mr. Pullen and Son, occupied about five years in bringing it to its present perfection. The patent of it, which embraces Great Britain and Ireland, the Isle of Man, Belgium, the Channel Islands, and France, and all her colonies, was sealed on the 14 (sic) of December, 1874. In a week or two the patent, works &c., will pass into the hands of a limited liability company. The newly erected manufactory for the making of calculating machines is on the margin of the Little North Western line on the south side of Bentham station. The dimensions of the building within are 30 yards by 15 yards. The building consists of first and second floors, with six lights in each room. The working machinery on the first floor is a horizontal engine of four horse power nominal, by Tangye, and Bros., three turning lathes, punching and stamping machines, a circular saw, grinding stone, a brass plate polisher &c. The circular saw, though small, has an astonishing cutting power, and it quickly severs solid cylindrical or flat pieces of brass. The punching machine is an ingenious apparatus for making half or any other defective hole which could not be done by the hand.

‘The calculating machine is a neat instrument fixed on an ornamental frame, made either of mahogany, rosewood or walnut. The frames are either square or oval ......... There are three kinds of calculating machines, all under one patent, as the principle is the same in them all, and the difference is in their arrangement. The price of the first is four guineas, the second two guineas, and the third 10s. 6d. The last named machine is an exceedingly simple arrangement, and it is very suitable for small shopkeepers. The machines are all fitted up with a neat polished cedar-box. The works, in addition to the proprietors, give employment to two men and two boys. The invention of the machine, and its neat and portable construction, reflect great mechanical skill on the part of the inventors, and as a reward for their ingenuity and perseverance one hopes that the undertaking will be one of marked success.’

But how did the machine actually work? Rambler attempted a description but as the Pullens’ provisional patent specification explained:-

‘The object of this Invention (M. & W. Pullen’s Improved Calculating Machine) is to add together and calculate or ascertain the total of a column or number of figures, whether such column or number of figures relates to abstract or concrete qualities. For this purpose we employ a dial or table mounted on an axis capable of revolving at intervals. This dial is divided on the surface into compartments, which are numbered decimally or in degrees of ten. We also employ another and smaller dial, which is divided into ten parts, and marked with the number of the units. Affixed to the axis of the first mentioned dial or table is a toothed wheel having the same number of teeth as there are divisions on the dial, and on the axis of the smaller dial is a either (sic) worm or pinion wheel gearing into the aforesaid wheel; also on the said axis is a ratchet wheel, into which enters a catch mounted on the dial for purpose herein-after explained. There is also on this axis a pinion which gears with a toothed rack attached to a slidable plate or bed capable of being moved backwards and forwards by the hand of the operator, the length of stroke being regulated by a series of slide stops or keys numbered in a manner corresponding with the units on the small dial; or instead of the slidable plate the slide stops or keys may be made of different lengths, or to more different distances when operated upon according to the number which each represents, and so act upon and turn the dials, but we prefer the slidable plate arrangement.

‘The mechanism may be provided with a suitable cover having apertures through which the figures on the dial can be seen.

‘The method of working is as follows:- Suppose it be required to add together the abstract numbers five and nine the operator passes (sic) down the key marked five, and draws back the toothed rack as far as the catch of when (sic) the figure five will appear through the aperture for the smaller dial. He then pushes in the rack to its original position, the axis and pinion turning round but the dial remaining stationary by reason of the arrangement of the ratchet wheel and catch. He then removes his finger from the key number five, and places it upon key number nine, and repeats the operation of drawing back the rack, and the result will be that the small dial will have performed one revolution and a part of another; also by means of the worm or pinion on the axis of this dial the larger dial will have been moved round to the extent of one tooth or division; therefore the number indicated by the large dial will be ten, and that by the smaller dial will be four; the total indicated by the two figures on the two dials being fourteen, and so on with any number or series of figures in succession. Whatever be the number of figures added together the result is always given by adding together the two figures or numbers indicated or shewn by the two dials.

‘We also construct a very simple apparatus on a similar principle to the foregoing of two discs of cardboard or other substance mounted on the same axis, the upper disc being smaller than the lower, the lower and larger disc being mounted with the units from one to sixty, and the upper with the units from one to ten, the figures only occupying one-sixth of its circumference. Opposite each number on the larger disc is a hole, into which a pin can be inserted, by which the disc can be drawn round on its axis to a certain place or fixed point where the total of the series of successive figures are indicated.’

The sealed specification was in much greater detail, referring to a large accompanying sheet of drawings (which had been engraved on stone by Malby and Sons, a firm then mainly engaged in the manufacture of terrestrial and celestial globes for schools and the printing of sea charts for the Admiralty, and which still exists). It explained that the dial of cardboard could be ‘divided radially into 77 compartments or divisions, which radial divisions are divided concentrically into three parts. The outer row of divisions contains abstract numbers in tens from ten to seven hundred and sixty. The next inner one contains the amounts in shillings and pence, corresponding to the number of pence indicated by the abstract numbers aforesaid, and on the same principle the inner or third division contains the total of a given number of pounds expressed in quarters and pounds.’ Rambler had noted that other dials could be affixed, denoting lineal, square, cubic or liquid measures.

What Rambler did not explain was who were Moses and William Pullen, or the Procter who appears in his description as a co-proprietor of the company. Moses Pullen was in fact temporary headmaster of Bentham Grammar School, for one year only, resigning in May, 1876. Censuses provide some information. As a young man of 20 in Bolton in 1841 he was described as a mechanic. By 1851 he was a National School master, listing his birthplace as Manchester. In 1861 he (still a National School master), his wife Ann, his father, seven daughters and one son William aged 5 were living in Painswick, Gloucestershire. (It is known that around this period he taught science to a pupil, A. W. Bickerton, who later became the first professor of chemistry at Canterbury College, New Zealand.) Only William had been born in Painswick - the other children had been born in Lancashire, Cheshire and Shropshire. Moses was clearly moving around a good deal for work. The 1871 census finds the family in Southwick (near Shoreham on the Sussex coast), with five daughters still at home. Moses is described as a teacher. William is by now a pupil teacher living with an elder married brother, also a schoolmaster, in Norfolk.

After the events of 1874-5, when Moses would have been about 54 and William about 18 years old, the next census in 1881 shows Moses, a widower now, in Leeds, with four unmarried daughters still at home, all five engaged in hosiery manufacture. There was also in the household one married daughter, Alice Sanderson, together with her children aged six, five, and three, all three born in Bentham. Their father, William Sanderson, was by then a commercial traveller for a yarn and hemp spinner and away from the family at the time of the census. In 1871 he had been a book-keeper living in Bentham, the son of William Sanderson, manager of the Bentham bleach mill since 1866 and a Wesleyan local preacher. James Procter, living in Mewith in 1871, is described in the census as a landowner and local Methodist preacher, and seems a likely candidate for the partnership in the business. ( It is noted elsewhere that Moses Pullen was connected with the Bentham Meeting of the Quakers, but more in a‘temporal’ role.) In 1891 the census records Moses in the Elland area (near Halifax), a manufacturer of rugs, still with six family members in his household. His death was registered in Halifax in 1896.

So it is likely that mechanical ability, intellectual interest and non-conformist entrepreneurialism may have been the force driving the Pullens’ patent application. However, they were in competition with a great many other inventors on the same track. Mechanical comptometers had been produced since the 17th century, which culminated in Leibniz’ Stepped Reckoner, but not until the 19th century did such calculators come into popular usage. Colmar’s Arithmometer, invented in 1820 and produced from 1851 onwards, was the first commercially successful machine. From the mid 1870s, there were many key-operated designs originating on the continent and in the US. There seems to be no record that the Pullen’s particular version and bold business venture were successful. Also, one wonders why Moses Pullen left Bentham Grammar School in 1876, and what happened between then and his later hosiery and rug-making endeavours.

Any further information would be gratefully received.

Reference to this invention was seen at a local history exhibition held in Bentham Town Hall in May 2010, to which acknowledgement is given. Full details of the patent and drawings have been obtained from the UK Intellectual Property Office. Thanks are given to David Malby of The London Nameplate Mfg Co Ltd and Malby and Sons Ltd for permission to use the patent drawing.


  • The history of Bentham Grammar School, 1726-1976. Eds. R. E. Huddleston, J. R. Wilson, J. S. Warbrick. Pub. Bentham Grammar School, 1976.
  • J. Carr, Byegone Bentham. Pub. Landy Publishing, 1997.
  • J. Bibby, A History of Bentham. Continued to 1984 by L. Dowell. Pub. 1984.
  • Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Pullen Patent 1874

Pullen Patent 1874