William Seward Burroughs-portrait

Biography of William Seward Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs was born in Rochester, New York, on January 28, 1857 (some sources state his year of birth as 1855) to Edmund Burroughs, a mechanic, and Ellen Julia Burroughs, a homemaker. William had an older brother and sister as well as a younger sister. His father Edmund Burroughs was a model-maker for castings and new inventions, and had a thorough knowledge of mechanics and some inventive talent, but was never able to make much out of them financially, so the family was poor.

While William was still a small boy, his parents moved to Auburn, New York, where he was educated in the local public schools. William worked with machines and studied at the Auburn public schools while growing up and at the age of fifteen began to earn his own living, at first working in stores and lumber yards (according to some sources, in his early manhood he was engaged in one or two commercial enterprises) and later in a bank. So being only 16 y.o. he fulfilled his father's desire that his youngest son should choose a gentleman's vocation, and he entered the Cayuga County National Bank of Auburn as a clerk.

Joseph Boyer machine shop, St. Louis

William Seward Burroughs as 18 y.o. bank clerk

As a bank clerk, he was troubled by the long hours he spent pouring over bank ledgers in search of errors, and the equally long hours he devoted to guarding against such errors. Here he learned that nine-tenths of the work done indoors had to do with figures and that almost all of this work was addition. He also found in his daily work of handling figures one-half of his time was spent in guarding against errors and most of the other half was spent in hunting for errors. Thus he became interested in solving the problem of creating an adding machine. He was convinced that many other clerks and bookkeepers must encounter the same difficulty, and on the base of his background as mechanic he started thinking about how the problem might be solved. In the meantime, Burroughs' failing health prompted his doctors in the beginning of 1880s to order him to find a warmer climate and a more active occupation.

In 1882, after almost 10 years in the bank, and already diagnosed with tuberculosis, William Burroughs decided to move to Saint Louis, Missouri, where his father Edmund moved his model shop in the late 1870s and to use his help to start a career in mechanics and engineering. Later, he was employed by the Future Great Manufacturing Company and by a manufacturer of wood-working machinery. Using his newly-acquired technical know-how, combined with his familiarity with banks and balance sheets, gave him the ability to produce the first office adding machine (see adding machine of Burroughs).

In 1879 in Groton, New York, William Burroughs married to Ida E. Selover-Burroughs (born in 1859 to Perry Hazard Selover and Mary Ann Allen) with whom he would have four children: Jennie, Horace, Mortimer and Helen. Mortimer Perry Burroughs' (1885–1965) son was named in honor of his inventor grandfather, and went on to become a notable figure in American letters in the twentieth century as avant-garde novelist William S. Burroughs (1914-1997). Ida Burroughs died in 1896, and William Burroughs married to his nurse Nina F. Keltner.

In 1890s Burroughs' health had continued to worsen. In 1896 he resigned from the company and moved to Citronelle, Alabama, hoping that the change in climate would help him to get over his tuberculosis. It didn't however, and William Burroughs died in Citronelle, Alabama, on September 14, 1898, and was interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.