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The Burroughs Corporation was a major Americanmarker manufacturer of business equipment. The company was founded in 1886 as the American Arithmometer Company and was assimilated in the 1986 merger that resulted in the creation of Unisys. The company's history paralleled many of the major developments in computing. At its start it produced mechanical adding machines, and later moved into programmable ledgers and then computers. And while it was one of the largest producers of mainframe computers in the world, Burroughs also produced related equipment as well, including typewriters and printer.

Early history

In 1886 the American Arithmometer Company was established in St. Louis, Missourimarker to produce and sell an adding machine invented by William Seward Burroughs. In 1904, six years after Burroughs' death, the company moved to Detroitmarker and changed its name to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. It soon was the biggest adding machine company in America.

Evolving product lines

Burroughs developed a range of adding machines with different capabilities, gradually increasing in their capabilities. A revolutionary adding machine was the Sensimatic, which was able to perform many business functions semi-automatically. It had a moving programmable carriage to maintain ledgers. It could store 9, 18 or 27 balances during the ledger posting operations and worked with a mechanical adder named a Crossfooter. The Sensimatic developed into the Sensitronic which could store balances on a magnetic stripe which was part of the ledger card. This balance was read into the accumulator when the card was inserted into the carriage. The Sensitronic was followed by the E1000, the E2000, E4000, E6000 and the E8000, which was computer system supporting magnetic tape, card reader/punches and a line printer.

In time, Burroughs was selling more than adding machines, including typewriters. But the biggest shift in company history came in 1953; the Burroughs Adding Machine Company was renamed the Burroughs Corporation and began moving into computer products, initially for banking institutions. This move began with Burrough's purchase, in June 1956, of the ElectroData Corporation in Pasadena, Californiamarker, a spinoff of the Consolidated Electrodynamics Corporation. ElectroData had built the Datatron 205 and was working on the Datatron 220. The first major computer product that came from this marriage was the B205 tube computer. In the late 1960s the D2000, D4000 range was produced (also known as the TC500—Terminal Computer 500) which had a golf ball printer and a 1K (80 bit) disk memory. These were popular as branch terminal to the B5500/6500/6700 systems, which sold well in the banking sector, where they were often connected to non-Burroughs mainframes. In conjunction with these products, Burroughs also manufactured an extensive range of cheque processing equipment, normally attached as terminals to a larger system such as a B1700.

A force in the computing industry

Burroughs was one of the eight major United States computer companies (with IBM, the largest, Honeywell, NCR Corporation, Control Data Corporation, General Electric, RCA and UNIVAC) through most of the 1960s. Yet in terms of sales, Burroughs was always a distant second to IBM. In fact, IBM's share of the market at the time was so much larger than all of the others, that this group was often referred to as "IBM and the Seven Dwarfs."

At the same time, Burroughs was very much a competitor. Like IBM, Burroughs tried to supply a complete line of products for its customers, including Burroughs-designed printers, disk drives, tape drives, computer paper, and even typewriter ribbons.

Developments and innovations

The Burroughs Corporation developed three highly innovative architectures, based on the design philosophy of "language directed design". Their machine instruction sets favored one or many high level programming languages, such as ALGOL, COBOL or FORTRAN. All three architectures were considered "main-frame" class machines:

  • The Burroughs large systems machines starting with the B5000 in 1961, the B5500 was to follow a few years later; followed by the 6500/6700 in the later 1960s and the B7700 in the mid 1970's. The architecture of these machines were similar: stack machines designed to be programmed in an extended Algol 60. Their operating systems, called MCP (Master Control Program—the name later borrowed by the screenwriters for Tron), were programmed in ESPOL (Executive Systems Programming Oriented Language, a minor extension of Algol) almost a decade before Unix, and the command interface developed into a compiled structured language with procedures called WFL (Work Flow Language).

Many computer scientists consider these series of computers to be technologically groundbreaking. Stack oriented processors, with 48 bit word length where each word was defined as data or program contributed significantly to a secure operating environment, long before spyware and viruses affected computing. And the modularity of these large systems was also unique: multiple CPUs, multiple memory modules and multiple I/O and Data Comm processors permitted incremental and cost effective growth of system performance and reliability. In industries like banking, where continuous operations was mandatory, Burroughs large systems penetrated most every large bank. And Burroughs built the backbone switching systems for SWIFT [Society for Worldwide Financial Telecommunications] which sent its first message in 1977. Unisys is still the provider to SWIFT today.

  • Burroughs produced the B2000 or "medium systems" computers aimed primarily at the business world. The machines were designed to execute COBOL efficiently. This included a BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) based arithmetic unit, storing and addressing the main memory using base 10 numbering instead of binary. The designation for these systems was the B2000-49xx followed by V-Series.
  • Burroughs produced the B1700 or "small systems" computers that were designed to be microprogrammed, with each process potentially getting its own virtual machine designed to be the best match to the programming language chosen for the program being run.
  • The smallest general-purpose computers were the B700 "microprocessors" which were used both as stand-alone systems and as special-purpose data-communications or disk-subsystem controllers.
  • Burroughs also manufactured an extensive range of accounting machines including both stand-alone systems such as the Sensimatic, L500 and B80, and dedicated terminals including the TC500 and specialised check processing equipment.
  • In the early 1980s Burroughs began producing personal computers, the B20 and B25 lines. These ran the BTOS operating system, which Burroughs licensed from Convergent Technologies. These machines implemented an early Local Area Network to share a hard disk between workgroup users.
  • Burroughs financed early work on Wafer-scale integration, but abandoned this at about the time of the merger with Sperry [390]. Ivor Catt attempted to continue this in conjunction with Sir Clive Sinclair, its ultimate demise was caused by reduction in conventional chip prices.

Burroughs also made military computers, such as the D825, in its Great Valley Laboratory in Paoli, Pennsylvaniamarker. The D825 was, according to some scholars, the first true multiprocessor computer.


In September 1986, Burroughs Corporation merged with Sperry Corporation to form Unisys. Interestingly, the origins of both Sperry and Burroughs were in Philadelphia. Unisys has continued to evolve as did its predecessor, and as the market for mainframe computers shrank, Unisys has emphasized other product lines.

References in popular culture

Burroughs B205 hardware has appeared as props in many Hollywoodmarker TV and movie productions from the 1960s onwards. For example a B205 console was often shown in the TV series Batman as the Bat Computer; also as the computer in Lost in Space. B205 tape drives were often seen in shows such as The Time Tunnel and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.


  1. Enslow, Philip H., Jr., "Multiprocessor Organization - A Survey", Computing Surveys, Vol. 9, March 1977, pp.103-129.


  • Barton, Robert S. "A New Approach to the Functional Design of a Digital Computer" Proc. western joint computer Conf. ACM (1961).
  • Gray, George. "Some Burroughs Transistor Computers", Unisys History Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1, March 1999.[391]
  • Gray, George. "Burroughs Third-Generation Computers, Unisys History Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 5, October 1999. [392]
  • Hauck, E.A., Dent, Ben A. "Burroughs B6500/B7500 Stack Mechanism", SJCC (1968) pp. 245-251.
  • McKeeman, William M. "Language Directed Computer Design", FJCC (1967) pp. 413-417.
  • Organick, Elliot I. "Computer System Organization The B5700/B6700 series", Academic Press (1973)
  • Wilner, Wayne T. "Design of the B1700", FJCC pp. 489-497 (1972).

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