April is both National Poetry Month and National Financial Literacy Month, and I was torn – but ultimately I decided to go with the money. (Maybe next year, Poetry.)  Here is an Olivetti Summa Quanta 20 printing calculator, purchased in D.C. in 1972 and used in Silver Spring.

We have four mid-20th century adding machines – or mechanical printing calculators – in our collections. One, a Victor Champion (like this one) from the 1950s, has no known history; the other three, including this Olivetti, were donated by Allen Hillman of Silver Spring. Mr. Hillman, a CPA, worked for Sinrod & Tash in D.C. until 1967, when he left to start his own accounting firm; his first office was on 16th Street, and he later moved to Colesville Road in Silver Spring. The machines he donated show the course of his early career: an electric Remington Rand from the 1940s, purchased used by the donor from Sinrod & Tash when he started his own firm, and in use until 1973; a hand-cranked Olivetti Summa 15, in a traveling case, bought new in 1958 and used at his home until 1975; and this Olivetti Summa Quanta 20.

According to Mr. Hillman, when the Summa Quanta 20 came out, “everybody bought one.” He got this one in 1972 from Leon Office Machine Co at 623 H St NW, and used it in his Silver Spring office until 1980, when he – like many of his colleagues – switched to a new, just-introduced electronic calculator. 

Olivetti is an Italian company, founded in 1908. Our electric (but not electronic) Summa Quanta 20, made in Argentina, has a green metal cover and a reddish-brown plastic base. It still has its cord and plug, as well as a gray vinyl dust cover. According to the donor, part of the appeal was that it was “portable;” while it’s not exactly a hand-held machine it is, at only 11″ long and 5″ tall, rather smaller and lighter than the other machines in our collection.

Vintage adding machines, or mechanical printing calculators, come in many different varieties and perform different functions; woe to the ignorant person who thinks a calculator is a calculator is a calculator. Fortunately, there are collectors and fans out there who are happy to share their collections online. Though I personally have never thought much about mechanical adding machines – I grew up with electronic calculators, and had never seen a hand-crank machine until Mr. Hillman’s donation – I can understand their appeal. Like typewriters, they are interesting on several levels: as aesthetic objects, reflecting the design sensibilities of their time; as historical artifacts, telling the story of changing technologies and changing economies; and as functioning machines, still valid and useful even in our digital age. Just don’t ask me to actually use one.

Want to see some more machines? These websites – here, here, and here – have both technical information, for those of you interested in the mechanics, and photos, for those who want to admire the design.  Wikipedia also has a fairly thorough history of mechanical vs. electronic calculators, here. These sites are only a sampling; if you enjoy them, I encourage you to while away an hour or so with your preferred internet search engine and a few keywords. 

Edited: to correct the name of Mr. Hillman’s first CPA firm. 4/25/12

**NOTE!!** Next week’s blog will be a day late, as I’ll be at the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis.  Your monthly dose of postcard history will arrive on Thursday the 3rd!