Museum Artifact: Victor Adding Machine - 600 Series, c. 1939
Made By: Victor Adding Machine Company, 3900 N. Rockwell St., Chicago, IL [North Center]
The story of the Victor Adding Machine begins—ironically enough—with a miscalculation. Or at least, a misunderstanding. Some might even go as far as to call it a bamboozling.
In the summer of 1918, according to lore, a salesman came to the door of the Buehler Bros. meat market on Lincoln Avenue, asking to speak with the owner of the joint. “You’re looking at him,” answered Carl Buehler.
“Ah, pleasure to meet you then, my good man,” said the salesman. “The name’s O.E. Cheesman [tips his fedora]. I’m stopping by today to see if you’re satisfied with the current state of the adding machine in your establishment.”
Carl Buehler was no gullible Gus. Already a tick over the age of 50, he’d worked with his two brothers to establish one of the first legitimate grocery store chains in the country, with dozens of locations across the Midwest—from Cleveland to Kalamazoo, Peoria to Duluth [the one pictured here was in Springfield, Ohio]. His keen business instincts would normally tell him not to trust a fella named Cheesman, but as the fates would have it, Carl was actually desperately in need of a good tabulating device of some sort.
“Truth is, I don't own one,” he told the salesman, explaining that he generally did his record keeping the old fashioned way, with a pen and a pad + some quick mental math.
“Well, sure, the brain can toss around some figures,” chimed Cheesman, “but my investors and I feel we’ve done it one better. I’m talking lickety split addition; huge inventories handled in a few quick strokes. Always accurate! Easy to operate! Lightweight! The brand new Victor Adding Machine is the cat’s pajamas!”
Seduced by visions of efficiency, Carl Buehler agreed to a simple transaction. He’d hand over $100 for one of these newfangled magic number processors. Since most comparable machines of the day were selling for nearly twice that price, it sounded like a bargain.
“Hot dog! It’s a deal,” said Cheesman.
Sure enough, just a few days later, Buehler got what he’d paid for—only it wasn’t an actual adding machine, per se. It was a certificate—sent by mail—for 10 shares of Victor Adding Machine Company stock.
At first, Buehler was rightly miffed. He’d been hoodwinked by that sly cheese man. The more he thought about it, however, Carl decided he had more to gain by seeing how this new “investment” played out, rather than cutting bait at square one.
It wound up being a life changing calculation.
By December of the same year, Buehler was suddenly and unexpectedly knee deep in the add machine business. At a gathering of Victor stockholders, he spoke again with O.E. Cheesman, while also meeting the two key figures behind the company’s creation—investor George Eldred (who was also Cheesman’s brother-in-law) and the brains behind the whole operation, inventor Oliver D. Johantgen.
While everybody involved in the enterprise seemed plenty intelligent and ambitious, Carl Buehler was clearly the only one in the room with proven experience running a business. As such, he was voted president of the fledgling company just months after he’d accidentally purchased stock in it.
According to Carl’s son A.C. Buehler, his dad accepted the offer not just because he saw the potential in a portable, affordable adding machine, but because he simply relished a challenge.
“Dad seemed to have the ability to reason out how things could work,” A.C. recalled in a 1968 interview for the book, It All Adds Up: The Growth of Victor Comptometer Corporation. “He had a knowledge of people and their characteristics and their thinking. His basic premise was to try to satisfy the customer—to give good value at a low price. Businessmen didn’t always think that way. The old idea was to sell a few products at a high price to the top of the economic pyramid. But dad understood that the further down you go on the pyramid, the bigger the market; so if you could give a good value and get the price down very low, you were going to sell more.”
That was a philosophy Buehler had developed in his meat market business, and he saw no reason it couldn’t carry over to clunky little number crunchers.
By 1921, with Buehler personally keeping it financially afloat on his own dime, Victor slowly started gaining ground on its cumbersome, more expensive competitors—not only by offering high-end clients a more advanced machine, but by targeting middle-class customers whom other calculator companies weren’t even bothering with: mom-and-pop shop owners, small-time clerks and accountants, you name it.
In a move that surprised many within their own family, Carl Buehler also named his eldest son—the pint-sized 24 year-old Albert (A.C.) Buehler—as Victor’s general manager, believing the kid could do more good with the upstart tech company than he could for the far more profitable and established Buehler Bros. grocery business.
The first obstacle was just making sure the product was worth everyone’s time.
In the early years, the Victor Company was nomadic, renting space in several different locations, and fielding a team of less than a dozen workers. Oliver Johantgen, along with being the inventor of the machine, was also in the office every day as the final inspector—making sure any flaw was accounted for.
A farmboy from Oregon, Indiana, Johantgen had been working on this project obsessively for more than 20 years, all while ironically never earning enough money to bother adding it up on the machine he’d invented. His first prototype was built in 1903, but it took another 15 years to convince a dedicated investment group (Eldred and Cheesman) to go all-in and get a charter to start a company. They called it “Victor,” even though it was arguably the single most overused brand name in America.
Johantgen and his pals were all gambling on the clear selling points that separated his adding machine from the old guard. The original Victor 110 model weighed far less than standard machines of the day (35 LBS vs 100 LBS), contained far fewer components (about 1,250 vs 2,500+), and could be built affordably on modern screw machines and punch presses, rather than old fashioned casting and milling. The Buehlers also settled on keeping the price tag at a solid $100—same as an average working man’s typewriter of the day, but far less than most commercial adding machines.
Competitors like Chicago’s Felt & Tarrant MFG Company tried to turn the Victor machine’s pros into cons, suggesting a light, sleek machine was also weak and vulnerable to breakdown. The Buehlers worked to refute those claims, while also encouraging Johantgen to redesign the model 110 with all the best modern features. It had to be a “listing” machine (one that prints out paper readouts) and needed an eighth column added to the numbered, push-button keypad. Johantgen complied, but the process was frustrating.
“Our facilities for manufacturing at this time were very poor and we, therefore, had considerable trouble, both mechanical and financial,” Johantgen said in 1929. “But as Mr. Buehler always came to our rescue with the necessary cash, we were finally able to overcome our mechanical troubles and began to make a little money about 1922.”
[The compact 35 LB Victor 110 versus the average 100 LB adding machine of the late 1910s]
Besides putting up the capital, Carl Buehler also knew how to get the most out of his employees. “Give a man a job to do,” he would say, “treat him with respect, recognize him when he does a good job, and let him make some money, too.”
The Victor sales team (which was fronted by F.B. Willis after Mr. Cheesman sold his shares) utilized innovative techniques, including bringing the actual machines door-to-door (instead of photos), and offering incentives like full refunds or free repairs for damaged devices. This sounded like a great perk to buyers, but from the Victor perspective, they were building such a smooth-running machine that those supposed repair, maintenance, and refund costs would actually amount to a sliver of their total budget.
Come 1925, Victor had sold more than 100,000 machines into circulation, and they’d also finally managed to move into their own permanent factory space at 3900 N. Rockwell Street in what is now the North Center neighborhood.
[The Victor plant at 3900 N. Rockwell Street in 1925 (top left), expanded in 1942 (top right), and occupied by several different unrelated companies in 2016 (bottom)]
With a new 100,000 square foot facility secured, Victor started testing the limits of their business model.
“In business you’ve just got to take chances,” A.C. Buehler said in 1968. “Sometimes you go wrong, of course. But you just have to keep trying, that’s all. I only know one way and that is to make a decision and then really to work and try to make it succeed. I figure if you’re 60 to 70 percent right, then you’re doing about as well as anyone can expect. Then you only have 30 to 40 percent to change. That’s when you take a new look, adjust your thinking, and go to work correcting your mistakes.”
There were a few mistakes along the way, indeed. In the mid ‘20s, Victor tried to break into the typewriter market with a lightweight design that seemed, logically, to have the same appeal as the Victor adding machines. It flopped. Overall sales were taking a hit by 1928, as well.
But like Hack Wilson down the road at Wrigley Field, A.C. Buehler also hit plenty of homeruns. He had helped forge a deal with the McCaskey Register Company of Alliance, Ohio, to use Victor adding machines as part of the McCaskey cash register design— a major coup. Similar unions were formed as A.C. hit the pavement across the country, making connections with dealers and distributors. Victor even went international, striking a deal with the Heissel Freres firm in Paris for distribution.
Things were looking more promising by 1929, as Victor’s new 310S and 320S machines ushered in the fancy-pants new subtraction function as a selling point. When the stock market crashed that October, however, the Victor Adding Machine Co. found they had to use those subtract buttons a bit more than they'd bargained for.
The company unveiled its advanced electric 500 series in 1931, greatly improving the quality of the product while keeping prices level. But their new competition was coming from an unexpected source. America’s shuttered businesses were selling off their old office equipment on the secondary market, and old Victor models could now be had on the cheap. For the first time, the company was losing money.
“The prospects for the coming year are difficult to forecast,” Carl Buehler told investors in 1931. "Adding machines are not vitally essential for the average business. At least, new equipment is not necessary until expansion programs are put into effect. And then only until such plans are well underway can we hope for such improvement. In the meantime, we will sit tight, cut expenses wherever possible, and wait for business to revive.”
The following year, Carl Buehler died at the age of 66. As if that weren’t enough of a blow for his son to suffer, Victor’s mechanical genius Oliver Johantgen died the same year at just 57.
It was a turning point in the company’s history, and A.C. Buehler was up to the task.
[A.C. Buehler seen in his later years (1960s) with a portrait of his father Carl behind him]
The first step, as A.C. had learned from his father, was looking out for his workers.
“They tried their best for us,” a former employee recalled in 1968. “The works manager himself used to come over to our home and pick me up just so I’d be able to get in a few hours of work. They’d also send people around to the homes to find out if people needed any help. If we had debts, they’d help you figure out a way to pay them off, and they’d pay them off too. Then you repaid the company whenever you were able to. At work, soup and coffee were served free to the employees, and they set up a way we could Buehler Bros. meat at the plant at wholesale prices.”
Buehler eventually set up an employee profit sharing plan, as well, one of the first modern types of its kind in Chicago.
[Victor employees gather at the Edgewater Beach Hotel at the launch of the company's profit sharing plan on December 8, 1941. The event was a bit less joyous than intended, coming one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.]
As for the R&D end of things, A.C. replaced Johantgen with another accomplished lifelong calculator machine junkie, Thomas O. Mehan (previously the inventor of the old “Brennan” machine), who rolled out the versatile Victor 600 and 700 series shortly before World War II. The machine in our collection is one of the 600's, featuring a full 6-column keyboard, no dial-wheel register, and the lightest weight achieved yet: less than 9 LBS. It sold in 1939 for around $50, or roughly $850 when adjusted for inflation.
Mehan’s slick modern designs spurred a rebound in Victor sales, but the machines were marketed basically the same way every Victor model had been since the beginning.
“Cut your operating costs,” one 1940s ad for the Victor 600 read. “Eliminate long hours of hand figuring. Anyone can operate. Small, compact, easy to move anywhere. Precision-built, like fine watches. Strong and sturdy. Made by the World’s Largest Exclusive Manufacturers of Adding Machines.”
Of course, the "exclusive" was only partially true. Like many Chicago manufacturers, Victor’s Rockwell Street plant expanded during the war, as the usual business took second fiddle to new military contracts. A.C. Buehler’s roster of workers grew from around 350 to over 1,400 as Victor was given a critical role in producing bombsight devices for the U.S. Air Force—including the Norden design that would eventually be used by the Enola Gay above Hiroshima.
“Starting with two sample bombsights, the company set about making blueprints, getting special machinery, building new plant facilities, and training hundreds of men and women to carry out the highly skilled production job,” the Tribune reported in 1945. “For successful achievement of that production job at which others had failed, the Victor Adding Machine company next Monday will be given the Army-Navy ‘E’ [an award of recognition].”
[A.C. Buehler (third from left) presenting the Enola Gay's bombsight 4120 to the Smithsonian Institute in 1947]
Riding high into peacetime, Victor got into the automatic calculator game, and also started widening its corporate heft. They bought out the old McCaskey Register Company, merged back in with the Buehler Bros. Company (which had been carrying on under the control of A.C.’s brothers all these years), and eventually joined forces with one of their old rivals—the Comptometer Corporation (once known as Felt & Tarrant MFG). It was called a merger, but Victor took over control of the Comptometer calculator products, creating a new entity in 1961 known as the Victor-Comptometer Corporation.
[Workers at the Victor-Comptometer plant in the 1960s]
By 1968, the little upstart that began with a misunderstanding had grown into a Fortune 500 company, with more than a dozen plants around North America—including the original Chicago facility. Following A.C. Buehler’s death in 1971, however—and the subsequent rise of his son A.C. Jr. to Chairman—change was on the way.
Victor-Comptometer merged with New Jersey’s Walter Kidde & Co, Inc., in 1977, and much of the old Victor calculator production was moved to El Paso, Texas, under the name Victor Business Products.
In the aftermath of your typical 1980s series of Chapter 11’s, buyouts, and brand swaps, a corporation known as Victor Technology, LLC, survived into the present day—still claiming a historical link to the original Victor Adding Machine Co. from 100 years ago, despite no clear connections to the old family business. Victor Tech is still in the calculator game—calling itself “the exclusive provider of Sharp calculators in the U.S. and Latin America” and “the largest provider of printing calculators in the U.S.” Their headquarters, in Bolingbrook, Illinois, isn’t too far from where it all started either.