Felt & Tarrant - The Company

Two years after he arrived in Chicago at the age of 20, Dorr Eugene Felt designed the first crude model of what was to become the Comptometer. It would take another 2 years to complete a design that would meet his standards for performance and reliability. Meanwhile. he had been working in various Chicago machine shops, eventually teaming with Robert Tarrant who was supportive of the work with both time and money. By 1887, they had formed the partnership of Felt & Tarrant.

By mid-1887, eight machines had been built and after a brief trial, four were installed in U. S. Treasury offices, a marketing coup of considerable importance. The other machines were quickly snapped up by Chicago area companies who very soon presented Felt with the problem of providing trained operators. So quite early in the life of this venerable machine, we can see the tight bond between high speed machine and trained operator that was to become the cornerstone of the company's success.

A bit of early corporate paper trail: On Jan 19, 1889, the partnership was incorporated with 400 shares of stock, Felt getting 225 (9/16ths), Tarrant 150 shares (6/16ths) and C.J.DeBerard the remaining 25 shares (1/16th). Two years later, in what may be one of the earliest stock "splits" ever recorded, a new agreement covering loans from Bob Tarrant, showed 4000 shares without change in the proportional ownership. An agreement dated Jan 20, 1898, showed Felt turning over 386 of his shares to Tarrant in return for cancelling the loans.

Meanwhile, back at the inventors' workbench, about the same time that Felt first patented his Comptometer (early 1885), Wm. S. Burroughs had devised a "adding-listing" machine which provided the seed for the company that would become an arch rival for Felt & Tarrant. Quickly, Felt and/or Tarrant decided that the addition of a listing feature to the Comptometer would be required. Thus began the search for a way to combine a printed listing with the speed of the key-driven Comptometer. The Comptograph "adder-lister" would occupy the design talents of Felt for the next 14 years and dispite some notable technical achievements, never quite reach the elusive goal.

By 1902 Felt had had enuf but Tarrant still believed in the adder-lister and the two split the business with Felt retaining control of F&T and Tarrant taking command of the Comptograph Company. Felt would now concentrate his energies on improving his beloved "shoebox" machines and running the business as he saw fit. While the Comptograph had some initial success in Europe, it quickly died off with the start of WWI in 1914.

Sometime between 1904 and 1908, sales had climbed enuf to require a relocation of the factory to larger quarters.
(Factory06)This "modern" facility with its snug little adjacent office, was located in the 800 block of No. Paulina St. It would seem that it sufficed for just a few years and produced only the A- and B-model machines. By 1910, yet another move would be required, this time further up Paulina Street to the 1700 block where numerous expansions would take place over the coming decades.

Sales of Comptometers seem to explode after the arrival of the F-model in 1915. While the war certainly had an impact, the new model with its novel error- detection and correction "Controlled Key" feature was a more likely factor. In a bit less than five years, over 42,000 of this model were sold compared to half that number for all models combined for the previous 30 years! The company had clearly arrived on the U.S. business scene as its expanded manufacturing facilities attested.

By 1920, F&T had a worldwide business requiring some 100 fulltime salesmen. For the launch of the new H-model, Felt would bring them to Chicago in June for a convention that many would likely consider the hilite of their career.

(Salesmen 1920)
(click above for detailed views)
This amazing panorama is over 36" wide and (unlike the blended image above) was a single photograph! It clearly entailed considerable time and cost to set up and reproduce copies for all attendees. The "Roaring 20s" were destined to bring Dorr E. Felt and his "shoebox" Comptometer the success that both so clearly deserved.

By 1924, things were humming along for the key-driven calculator and the battle with Burroughs had become one of "market share". Felt & Tarrant would seek the high ground with this statement from a tidy little 16-page booket promoting the advantages of becoming a Comptometer operator...

   "Things of Quality are distintive. They stand out sharp and clear against the flat level of mediocrity. In them are reflected always the genius, vision and artistic handiwork of a master Craftsman. Such things live and endure. They set, each in its own sphere, the standards of excellence at which imitators aim. But leadership in excellence is never attained through imitation. As the shadow but imperfectly reflects the image of substance, so the imitator copies only the form, not the essence of Quality. Real Quality does not hold the lure of cheapness. Though necessarily of higher price, it costs less in the end. It is by the policy of "not how cheap, but how good" that Quality lives.

"For 37 years, this policy has dominated every step in the progressive developement of the Comptometer. From the beginning, it has been, is now and will continue to be, a Quality machine. And when a better machine is built, it will still bear the trademark--


Clearly, both a jab at their competitor and a statement of credo.

The J-model was introduced in early 1926 with several refinements but no new major design feature. However, its pedigree was such that it became the backbone of the business and remained in production for nearly 40 years! By1930, when Felt died, the firm had some 850 employees and over $3 million in sales.

After Felt's death in 1930, the company would introduce a varity of machines but none with the unique style and elegance of the "shoebox" models.

Medallion1936 marked the Golden Anniversary of the Comptometer and the company celebrated with color ads, specially stuck medallians like the one shown here, and (presumably) events and hoopla long since relegated to the dustbin of history.

By 1946, tax problems would force the 11 family descendant stockholders to "go public" (an IPO). In 1957, the name Felt & Tarrant disappeared and the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange as The Comptometer Corporation. A few years later it would merge with the Victor Adding Machine Company to become the Victor Comptometer Corp and eventually disappear as all things must.

Alex Kinmond, who worked for Felt & Tarrant from 1937 til the merger with Victor in 1962 recalls the declining years...

"I started with F&T in Aug 1937 in the midst of the 1930s depression. Sales were not too brisk in that period but did pick up in 1939 and were reasonably good throughout the war period although I was away in the Air Force for four years.

"In 1946 I joined the sales force and did quite well until Canada clamped down on U.S. dollar imports in late 1947. With our sales restricted, I was sent to Hamilton, Ontario as service manager. In 1950 I moved back to sales and did very well for the next four years.

"In 1954 I was transferred to Toronto as Branch Manager. Around this time we were beginning to suffer from the effects of businesses switching office methods to IBM punch card operations (tabulators). We used to battle the punch card systems by saying that although they were fast, they multiplied errors just as quickly as correct answers. However it was not long before the larger establishments were into IBM systems and the effects was quite drastic.

"Fortunately we had the (new design) Comptograph produced by Walther of Germany to sell and it was a top line adding machine which sold extremely well. But by the late 50's one could see that the good old Comptometer was doomed. The factory in Chicago was closed and the Plus machine was renamed Comptometer and supplied to us from England. In 1962 Comptometer was merged (or should I say taken over by Victor) and key driven Comptometer sales dribbled to nothing.

"By the middle '60s, electronic machines began showing some muscle and it was not too long before all mechanical machines were sent to the graveyard. Comptometer, Friden, Monroe, Marchant and a host of adding machine Companies including Victor and Walther all bit the dust."

- Factory addresses thru the years -
1887-1904+ : 52-56 Illinois St. (src: several early ads)
1908: 868 N. Paulina St (src: 1908 ad)
1909: 862 N. Paulina St (src: 1909 ad)
1910: 1700 N. Paulina St. (src: 1910 ad)
1914: 1723 N. Paulina St. (src: 1914 ad)
1916: 1731 N. Paulina St. (src: 1916 ad)
1917: 1729 N. Paulina St. (src: 1917 ad)
1917: 1713-35 N. Paulina St. (src: ad in "The Soldiers' French Phrase Book")
1921: 1713-1735 N. Paulina St. (src: 1921 ad)


Chicago Factory at noon looking Northeast - about 1921
(click on above for some Year 2002 views)
- - -
Cross streets are N Paulina Ave (mid bottom to mid left),
W. Wabansia Ave (lower right hand corner)
Comptometer Lane* (mid bottom to mid right)
(* really just a fancifully widened alley).

Street information generously provided by Michael Janowski, who writes...
"I live in the house where I was born in Jan. 1950. Out my front window I can still see the FELT & TARRANT COMPTOMETER sign painted on the bricks.

"The apartment building on the corner of Paulina and Wabansia, bottom, just right of center, is still here but the little church/school just east of it is gone. Where the houses are in the lower left hand corner was Felt & Tarrant's parking lot in the 50's, thats something the workers didn't need when this photo was taken. I played ball there as a little kid. A Felt & Tarrant watchman would always run across the street and chase us out for fear we'd break some car windows.

"The main factory building at 1713-1735 Paulina has been yuppified into trendy lofts. I'm not absolutely sure, but I'd bet that the salesmen photo was taken on the east side of the building next to where the loading docks are set back in."

( any additional information is most welcome )

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