Burroughs Corporation
FateMerged with the Sperry Corporation in 1986 to form Unisys
Key people
William Seward Burroughs I

The Burroughs Corporation was a major American manufacturer of business equipment. The company was founded in 1886 as the American Arithmometer Company. In 1986, it merged with Sperry UNIVAC to form Unisys. The company's history paralleled many of the major developments in computing. At its start, it produced mechanical adding machines, and later moved into programmable ledgers and then computers. It was one of the largest producers of mainframe computers in the world, also producing related equipment including typewriters and printers.

Early history

1914 advertisement
1914 advertisement
An early Burroughs adding machine
An early Burroughs adding machine
Desktop model in use around 1910
Desktop model in use around 1910

In 1886, the American Arithmometer Company was established in St. Louis, Missouri, to produce and sell an adding machine invented by William Seward Burroughs (grandfather of Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs). In 1904, six years after Burroughs' death, the company moved to Detroit and changed its name to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. It was soon the biggest adding machine company in America.[1]

Evolving product lines

The adding machine range began with the basic, hand-cranked P100 which was only capable of adding.[citation needed][2] The design included some revolutionary features, foremost of which was the dashpot which governed the speed at which the operating lever could be pulled so allowing the mechanism to operate consistently correctly.[3] The machine also had a full-keyboard with a separate column of keys 1 to 9 for each decade where the keys latch when pressed, with interlocking which prevented more than one key in any decade from being latched. The latching allowed the operator to quickly check that the correct number had been entered before pulling the operating lever. The numbers entered and the final total were printed on a roll of paper at the rear, so there was no danger of the operator writing down the wrong answer and there was a copy of the calculation which could be checked later if necessary. The P200 offered a subtraction capability and the P300 provided a means of keeping two separate totals. The P400 provided a moveable carriage, and the P600 and top-of-the-range P612 offered some limited programmability based upon the position of the carriage. The range was further extended by the inclusion of the "J" series which provided a single finger calculation facility, and the "c" series of both manual and electrical assisted comptometers. In the late 1960s, the Burroughs sponsored "nixi-tube" provided an electronic display calculator. Burroughs developed a range of adding machines with different capabilities, gradually increasing in their capabilities. A revolutionary adding machine was the Sensimatic, which was able to perform many business functions semi-automatically.[citation needed] It had a moving programmable carriage to maintain ledgers. It could store 9, 18 or 27 balances during the ledger posting operations and worked with a mechanical adder named a Crossfooter. The Sensimatic developed into the Sensitronic which could store balances on a magnetic stripe which was part of the ledger card. This balance was read into the accumulator when the card was inserted into the carriage. The Sensitronic was followed by the E1000, E2000, E3000, E4000, E6000 and the E8000, which were computer systems supporting card reader/punches and a line printer.[citation needed]

Later, Burroughs was selling more than adding machines, including typewriters.

Move into computers

The biggest shift in company history came in 1953: the Burroughs Adding Machine Company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation and began moving into digital computer products, initially for banking institutions. This move began with Burroughs' purchase in June 1956, of the ElectroData Corporation in Pasadena, California, a spinoff of the Consolidated Engineering Corporation which had designed test instruments and had a cooperative relationship with Caltech in Pasadena.[4] ElectroData had built the Datatron 205 and was working on the Datatron 220.[4] The first major computer product that came from this marriage was the B205 tube computer. In the late 1960s the L and TC series range was produced (e.g. the TC500—Terminal Computer 500) which had a golf ball printer and in the beginning a 1K (64 bit) disk memory. These were popular as branch terminals to the B5500/6500/6700 systems, and sold well in the banking sector, where they were often connected to non-Burroughs mainframes. In conjunction with these products, Burroughs also manufactured an extensive range of cheque processing equipment, normally attached as terminals to a larger system such as a B2700 or B1700.

In the 1950s, Burroughs worked with the Federal Reserve Bank on the development and computer processing of magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) especially for the processing of bank cheques. Burroughs made special MICR/OCR sorter/readers which attached to their medium systems line of computers (2700/3700/4700) and this entrenched the company in the computer side of the banking industry.

A force in the computing industry

Burroughs was one of the nine major United States computer companies in the 1960s, with IBM the largest, Honeywell, NCR Corporation, Control Data Corporation (CDC), General Electric (GE), Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), RCA and Sperry Rand (UNIVAC line). In terms of sales, Burroughs was always a distant second to IBM. In fact, IBM's market share was so much larger than all of the others that this group was often referred to as "IBM and the Seven Dwarves."[5] By 1972 when GE and RCA were no longer in the mainframe business, the remaining five companies behind IBM became known as the BUNCH, an acronym based on their initials.

At the same time, Burroughs was very much a competitor. Like IBM, Burroughs tried to supply a complete line of products for its customers, including Burroughs-designed printers, disk drives, tape drives, computer printing paper, and even typewriter ribbons.

Developments and innovations

The Burroughs Corporation developed three highly innovative architectures, based on the design philosophy of "language-directed design". Their machine instruction sets favored one or many high level programming languages, such as ALGOL, COBOL or FORTRAN. All three architectures were considered mainframe class machines:

Many computer scientists consider these series of computers to be technologically groundbreaking. Stack oriented processors, with 48 bit word length where each word was defined as data or program contributed significantly to a secure operating environment, long before spyware and viruses affected computing. And the modularity of these large systems was also unique: multiple CPUs, multiple memory modules and multiple I/O and Data Comm processors permitted incremental and cost effective growth of system performance and reliability.

In industries like banking, where continuous operations was mandatory, Burroughs large systems penetrated most every large bank, including the Federal Reserve Bank. Burroughs built the backbone switching systems for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) which sent its first message in 1977. Unisys is still the provider to SWIFT today.

Merger with Sperry

Logo of Burroughs Corporation shortly before their merger with Sperry
Logo of Burroughs Corporation shortly before their merger with Sperry

In September 1986, Burroughs Corporation merged with Sperry Corporation to form Unisys. For a time, the combined company retained the Burroughs processors as the A- and V-systems lines. However, as the market for large systems shifted from proprietary architectures to common servers, the company eventually dropped the V-Series line, although customers continued to use V-series systems as of 2010. As of 2017 Unisys continues to develop and market the A-Series, now known as ClearPath.[15]

Reemergence of the Burroughs name

Burroughs Payment Systems in Plymouth, Michigan, 2011
Burroughs Payment Systems in Plymouth, Michigan, 2011

In 2010, Unisys sold off its Payment Systems Division to Marlin Equity Partners, a California-based private investment firm, which incorporated it as Burroughs Payment Systems based in Plymouth, Michigan.[16][17]

References in popular culture

Burroughs B205 hardware has appeared as props in many Hollywood television and film productions from the late 1950s. For example, a B205 console was often shown in the television series Batman as the Bat Computer; also as the computer in Lost in Space. B205 tape drives were often seen in series such as The Time Tunnel and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.[18][19] Craig Ferguson, American talk show host, comedian and actor was a Burroughs apprentice in Cumbernauld, Scotland.


  1. ^ "Burroughs Adding Machine". Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  2. ^ "Burroughs". Vintage Calculators Web Museum. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  3. ^ Morgan, Bryan (1953). Total to Date: The Evolution of the Adding Machine: The Story of Burroughs. Burroughs Adding Machine Limited London. p. 27.
  4. ^ a b Sawyer, T.J., "Burroughs 205 HomePage"
  5. ^ Dvorak, John C. (2006-11-25). "IBM and the Seven Dwarfs — Dwarf One: Burroughs". Dvorak Uncensored. Retrieved 2010-02-04.
  6. ^ "Burroughs B80 Family".
  8. ^ "China Deal For Burroughs", The New York Times, AP story, January 3, 1985
  9. ^ "Burroughs BUIC - AN/GSA-51 SAGE Backup", archived at SMECC
  10. ^ Anderson, J. P.; Hoffman, S. A.; Shifman, J.; Williams, R. J. (1962). "D825 - a multiple-computer system for command & control". Proceedings of the December 4-6, 1962, fall joint computer conference on - AFIPS '62 (Fall). p. 86. doi:10.1145/1461518.1461527.
  11. ^ Enslow, Philip H. Jr. (1977). "Multiprocessor Organization—A Survey". Computing Surveys. 9 (1): 103–129. doi:10.1145/356683.356688.
  12. ^ "Burroughs Display Systems" Archived 2012-03-24 at the Wayback Machine, Defense and Space Group Marketing Division, Paoli, Pennsylvania, 1965
  13. ^ a b Gray, George (October 1999). "Burroughs Third-Generation Computers". Unisys History Newsletter. 3 (5). Archived from the original on October 2, 2017.
  14. ^ "Title: Trade show exhibition featuring the D84; Date 1965" Archived 2014-11-29 at the Wayback Machine, University of Minnesota archives
  15. ^ "Unisys Awarded Contract to Support IRS Mission-Critical Computing Systems". Unisys. 2013-02-19. Retrieved 2013-03-11. BLUE BELL, Pa., February 19, 2013 - Unisys Corporation (NYSE: UIS) announced today that it has been awarded the Enterprise Computing Center Support (ECCS) contract from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) [...] Under this single-award indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract, the IRS can award Unisys task orders to provide support and maintenance services for the IRS computing environment, including Unisys ClearPath Dorado servers.
  16. ^ "Marlin Equity Partners acquires elements of Unisys payment systems" Archived 2010-04-14 at the Wayback Machine, Burroughs press release, February 3, 2010.
  17. ^ Burroughs Payment Systems website.In 2012, the company changed its name to Burroughs, Inc.
  18. ^ ""B205 On Screen"".
  19. ^ ""Starring the Computer: Burroughs B205"".

Further reading