Artefact adds up to a calculating machine

The Grimme, Natalis and Co calculating machine in the Scarborough Collections.
The Grimme, Natalis and Co calculating machine in the Scarborough Collections.

It may look like a steampunk sewing machine, but today’s exhibit from the Scarborough Collections is actually a calculator, albeit a fairly primitive one when you compare it to today’s versions, which may well be embedded in your smartphone.

Its resemblance to a sewing machine, especially when it has its wooden cover on, may not be entirely coincidental – this fine piece of kit was produced by German company Grimme, Natalis and Co, who were better known, at first at least, for their sewing machines.

It was probably made for the British market – the company was based in Braunschweig in Germany, but stamped on the side of the machine here we see the British spelling of that city – Brunswick.

Grimme, Natalis and Co, or GNC, was formed in 1871 by Carl Grimme and Albert Natalis, who had previously produced sewing machines independently.

Natalis (1831-1904) had started making the machines which would revolutionise the home fashion industry in his own factory in 1866.

Demand was so huge that he was soon able to team up with former locksmith Carl Grimme (1836-1883) to open a second factory and iron casting works.

In November 1871, they bought a couple more factories and became Grimme, Natalis and Co, which eventually had branches in Moscow, Milan and Trieste.

Their success in that particular market, however, was relatively short-lived: by the 1880s they were facing increasingly fierce competition, not least from the American Singer Corporation, which was founded in the early 1850s and which still rules the roost in the sewing machine world today.

GNC began to diversify, producing a wide range of domestic machines and implements, including ovens, gas furnaces, gas heaters, fans, patented duplex washing machines, wringers, shaping machines and cash registers.

In the 1890s GNC produced the first in a range of calculating machines which were to prove extremely successful, so much so that by the 1920s, with the company now known as Brunsviga-Maschinenwerke, Grimme, Natalis & Co AG, the calculator was by far and away its main product.

In 1959, the Olympia factory from Wilhelmshaven bought the company, and the name BRUNSVIGA served only as a brand from then on. Manufacturing ended at the Brunswick plant in 1979.

Our adding machine appears to be a Model A, which was manufactured between 1894 and 1920. And for all you calculator enthusiasts, here’s the science bit: there must be someone out there to whom the following makes sense…

It operated on a ‘pin wheel principle’, with a ‘rotating cursors input’. It was the first model ‘without clearance of input and 10th carry up to the 10th position, then butterfly clearance and 10th carry up to the 13th position, then 10th carry over all positions’.

A metal plate on the baseboard tells us it was distributed in this country by Block & Anderson, a maker and supplier of calculating and duplicating machines which operated between 1922 and 1968, with a head office in London, a factory on the Aycliffe Trading Estate in County Durham and ‘branches and agents throughout the world’.

If you worked in an office in the 1960s, you may well have used one of Block & Anderson’s ‘mechanised business aids’ – the Banda Spirit Duplicator (‘for economical multi-colour reproduction in one operation without the use of ink, stencils, or gelatine’); The Bandamail 500 Letter Opener (‘open your post without the fear of damage to contents at the rate of 500 letters a minute’) or the Victor Portable Adding Machine (‘weighing only one-and-a-half pounds and taking up about the same desk space as a telephone’).

The Grimme, Natalis and Co calculator is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.