Joseph Bell Alexander – Complete Biography, History, and Inventions

The patent drawing of Joseph Bell Alexander's Calculating Machine.

Joseph Bell Alexander – Complete Biography, History, and Inventions

While many of the greatest inventors of the 19th century are known only for what’s on their patent, the truth is that they had lives and careers outside of what they invented that sadly tended to get lost to the sands of time.

Whether it be a lack of proper preservation of existing documents or a simple lack of recordkeeping in the first place, there are countless individuals whose lives must be defined by what they invented instead of who they were as people.

Quick Facts

Full Name
Joseph Bell Alexander
May 11, 1821
July 12, 1871
Net Worth
Place of Birth
New Bern, North Carolina
Fields of Expertise
Alexander Calculating Machine, siphon bottles, bottle stoppers, automatic railroad switch, oil-burning lamp

Joseph Bell Alexander is one such person. Much is known about his adding machine, but not much is known about him. Let’s go over everything on Joseph Bell Alexander below. 

Joseph Bell Alexander’s Calculating Machine. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Who Was Joseph Bell Alexander?

Beyond the simple fact that Joseph Bell Alexander was an inventor, very little else is known about the man. First and foremost, we know Alexander was a doctor born on May 11th, 1821, in New Bern, North Carolina.  We also know that around 45 years later, in 1865, Joseph Alexander moved from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.

While there, he co-founded the undertaking firm of Brown & Alexander with Dr. Charles Brown. Interestingly enough, Brown & Alexander prepared Abraham Lincoln’s body for his funeral tour. The pair’s undertaking firm also prepared the president’s son Willie three years earlier. Not long after, on July 12th, 1871, Alexander died in Washington, D.C., and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery.

What is Joseph Bell Alexander Known For?

If one thing has been made clear in this profile on Joseph Bell Alexander, it’s that he’s known best for his inventions. From his calculating machine to the series of other patents and inventions throughout the rest of his career, Alexander has no shortage of interesting creations to discuss.

The patent drawing of Joseph Bell Alexander’s Calculating Machine.

Calculating Machine

While it seems Joseph Bell Alexander’s calculating machine was never actually brought to life, the patent for the invention describes it as a lever-set adding machine made with copper, brass, paper, and wood.

Its measurements come in at 20 cm x 14 cm x 19 cm, and its construction was somewhat similar to that of earlier devices like Jabez Burns’s Addometer and John Ballou’s Calculator. However, its mechanism was much more competently designed.

The device had a wooden case with a curved metal front and back, somewhat resembling an early cash register. It contained eight distinct sets of wheels and drums, with each of the eight wheels rotating vertically on a shared cross-shaft.

Each cogged wheel was connected to a lever that extended from the front of the machine that would then rotate upward to enter a given number. Numbers 1 through 9 were stamped on the front of the case next to each lever. 

Each of the eight large cogged wheels was linked to two smaller wheels. Each one of these smaller wheels had the numbers 0 to 9 printed around their edges. The first wheel turned forward, which allowed for addition and multiplication. The second wheel rotated backward, which allowed for subtraction and division. Multiplication was done by repeated addition, while the division was done by repeated subtraction.

The calculating machine’s tens-carry mechanism was implemented using a double pinion connected to the drum. Every tenth tooth on one of the eight large wheels had a spring cog that drove the adjacent wheel, allowing for carrying or borrowing to be done as needed at every ten carries.

The results recorded by these wheels could be visible through two rows of windows at the top of the adding machine’s case. Each of these windows had a hinged cover. There was a crank on the left side of the calculating machine that was attached to the ratchet-wheel, which could be used to zero the wheels associated with division keys.

Other Miscellaneous Patents

Beyond the big one — the Alexander Calculating Machine — Dr. Alexander took out six other patents over the years: one for oil-burning lamps, a series of patents for various siphon bottles and assorted bottle-stoppers, and one for an automatic railroad switch. Alexander’s siphon bottle patent was the first of its kind found in American patent records.

Joseph Bell Alexander’s Calculating Machine. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Joseph Bell Alexander: Marriage, Divorce, Children, and Personal Life

Even though the bulk of the existing records on Joseph Bell Alexander relates to his calculating machine, there is still little information on his personal life.


In 1964, around the time he first arrived in Washington, D.C., Alexander married a woman named Finnella Maury Little. She was the daughter of Margaret Foyles Little and John Little, a rich landowner in Washington, D.C. If the couple had children or ever got divorced, this information is not publicly or easily accessible.

While Alexander died in 1871 at the age of 50, his widow lived until 1904 and reached age 65.

Next Up…

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Joseph Bell Alexander?

Joseph Bell Alexander was a doctor, an undertaker, and an inventor who patented more than half a dozen inventions during his life in 19th century Washington, D.C.

What did Joseph Bell Alexander invent?

Joseph Bell Alexander invented the calculating machine, an oil-burning lamp, a series of siphon bottles and bottle-stoppers, and an automatic railroad switch.

How did Joseph Bell Alexander invent his adding machine?

Joseph Bell Alexander invented his adding machine by placing eight distinct sets of wheels, drums, and levers inside a wooden case with a curved metal front and back. While his device doesn’t seem to have ever seen the light of day, there’s no doubt his invention was one of a kind for its time.

When was Joseph Bell Alexander born?

Joseph Bell Alexander was born on May 11th, 1821 in New Bern, North Carolina.

When did Joseph Bell Alexander die?

Joseph Bell Alexander died on July 12th, 1871 in Washington, D.C. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery.

To top