“Why do I have to learn my multiplication tables?” — a fair question asked by every child prior to the turn of the century.

“Because you need to know this. You won’t be walking around with a calculator in your pocket all day.” — a fair and accurate response, uttered by every tired teacher on the planet. At least, the response was accurate before the mid-2000s. Now, following the rapid rise of first iPods then smartphones, everyone is walking around with a calculator in their pocket.

We could debate the pros and cons. Some think our brains are collectively turning to mush because we allow a machine to do all of our thinking for us. Some think delegating trivial questions to a machine frees up brain space for deeper thoughts and problem solving. Both likely hold some truth.

People have always searched for shortcuts. I would argue it's a part of our nature.

A Duluth company from the early 1950s banked on this. Ahead of their time, they also wondered why people couldn’t walk around with a calculator in their pocket, and had an idea to change that.

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A Ken+Add hand-held adding machine. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Murphy)
A Ken+Add hand-held adding machine. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Murphy)

The Ken+Add Machines Co. made mechanical calculators, meaning they worked via the turning of gears, rather than electrical impulses or computational programming. A pocket-sized electronic calculator was still two decades away.

The Ken+Add device was slightly smaller than a modern-day cellphone and almost as light, even though it appeared to be constructed primarily from metals. Four gears are embedded inside the case, with a stylus for turning the gears, much like dialing a rotary phone. (Does anyone born after 2000 even know what that means? I truly wonder.) By inputting numbers into the correct place value, one could add up to $99.99 (or 9,999).

My favorite part of the machine? A small magic slate tucked in the lid. Remember those? They were common toys back in the day, one that has somehow stood the test of time. Magic slates, though simple in their design, are still manufactured and sold today. In this case, the slate was meant to be used as an erasable notepad to accompany the adding machine, the stylus used as a writing tool as well as a gear turner.

It truly is an impressive-looking machine, even by today’s standards. The Smithsonian even has one in their collection. Pre-electronic calculator, I could see it being useful enough to carry around in a purse or pocket. If a person had a need for a lot of adding on the go, such as during a shopping trip or while doing homework, this device had them covered.

It had some odd limitations, however. For one, it could not subtract, which was a feature already common in competing adding machines. It was really just a matter of adding another odd-shaped cog to the wheel, so why the Ken+Add Machine Co. decided to forgo that often-used option is a mystery. On top of this, there was no “reset” switch that automatically set all four cogs to zero. It had to be done manually.

Both of these drawbacks might have added to the short life of the product. It doesn’t appear as though the adding machine was manufactured past 1954. In fact, the company itself can't be found in any of the Duluth city directories from the time, which seems odd. A friend of mine who excels at this type of research dove into it for me.

She found that the company was not really local at all, but owned by a Twin Cities company that is still in existence: the Harvey Vogel Manufacturing Co. Another deep dive showed that some of the adding machines do, in fact, say "St. Paul" on them rather than "Duluth," so the likely answer is that the company briefly flirted with the idea of expanding into the Duluth area, opened a small manufacturing center, then closed it when the product didn’t sell as well as hoped.

But considering I now, 66 years later, have one in my possession — and it looks and works as good as new (with the exception of the magic slate, which has understandably disintegrated and ripped) — I would argue these nifty little gadgets hit the nail on the head in a way indicative of Duluthians. They were well-made, hardy and did the job they came to do.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at kmurphywrites@gmail.com.