Friday, January 27, 2017

The Typewriter: Its Origins, Relics, and DNA

It is said that those of us who count our ancestry from Europe can count on having in our DNA makeup traces of Neanderthal humanoids, now extinct.  Similarly, typewriters, revolutionary in their time, will someday be only images in textbooks or on relics like the artifacts shown below.  But the DNA of the typewriter will live on for years to come.

The first commercially practical typewriter was invented in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I could look out the window of the newspaper on which I was employed and see a plaque that stood on the place where his workshop had been.  In the development phase when his keys kept jamming Sholes fixed the problem by making sure that common letter pairs like “t” and “h” were not adjacent on the keyboard.  The result was the QWERTY arrangement that has morphed over to computers.  Many have sought to improve on Sholes’ configuration of letters but none so far have been accepted.

This brings us to the paperweights and other artifacts that early manufacturers employed to advertise their “take” on the writing machine.  The Calligraph, making its appearance in 1880, was the third typewriter to be sold in the USA.  An odd looking machine, the initial version wrote in capital letters only and had uneven printing quality.  Subsequent Calligraphs wrote in both lower and upper case letters, had a renewable ribbon, and featured improved printing. Nevertheless, the machine went out of production in 1896.

The Smith Premier, shown here on a pocket mirror, made its appearance in 1890.  It was a full-keyboard typewriter made by the Smith & Brothers gun factory in Syracuse, New York.  Instead of the levers used on earlier machines, this typewriter was designed with cranks and rods that could be adjusted for control.  The Smiths issued several models, the last being in 1908.  Shortly thereafter the company went out of business, its brand name bought by the Remington Typewriter Company.

As early as 1896, Woodstock, Illinois, became known for typewriters made by by the Emerson Typewriter Co.,  When it became financially distressed after issuing a 1909 model called “Standard and Visible Typewriter,” Emerson sold it to Sears-Roebuck.  Advertised as a $50 machine “that compares in every particular with a $100 machines,” the department store partners completed a $40,000 factory in Woodstock. It named their company “The Woodstock Typewriter Company.”

Also shown on a pocket mirror, North’s typewriter was manufactured in Hatton Garden, London, England.  First issued in 1892 the North machines had its type bars standing in a pair of semi-circles that struck down at the patent from behind.  This rear down-strike was an effort to create a more visible type sheet by preventing the typebars from obstructing the view of the typist.  This strategy led to other complications and the machine found little commercial success.  The company folded in 1905.

Having seen above the ultimately failed efforts to bring a commercially viable machine to the public, we turn to Remington, a name that long was associated with typewriters and other office equipment.  Sholes and his partners proved to be less than canny businessmen and sold their patent for $12,000 to investors who in turn made a production agreement with E. Remington & Sons Co., then famous for making sewing machines.  From a factory in Ilian, New York, in 1873 the first Remington typewriters went into production.  It was the first machine to incorporate a shift key that allowed use of both upper- and lower case letters.  Incorporating the QWERTY keyboard, it was a hit with the public.

In 1886, E. Remington & Sons sold its typewriter business to a group of former employees calling themselves the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Co., with the rights to the Remington name.  By 1902 the owners had changed the name to the Remington Typewriter Company.  Their machine became the prototype of all the typewriters to come.  Over the years, the company issued a number of advertising items, many with the slogan, “To Save Time Is to Lengthen Life.”

The Underwood Company beginning in 1874 made typewriter ribbons for Remington.  When the latter decided to make their own ribbons, the founder, John Thomas Underwood, decided to make his own machines.  A company model issued in 1900 has been described as “the first truly modern typewriter” and propelled Underwood in its heyday to becoming the world’s largest typewriter manufacturer.  Its Hartford, Connecticut factory could turn out one typewriter a minute.  The company merged with Olivetti in 1963.

The Royal Typewriter Company emerged 1904, boasting its origins in a workshop in Brooklyn where Edward B. Hess and Lewis C. Myers had developed an improved machine. Convincing a wealthy financier to back them, they launched the firm to great success over the years. Their typewriter featured numerous innovations including a friction-free one-track rail to support the carriage, a improved paper feeder, better typebar and good visibility of typed words. Shown here on a pack of matches, Royal today survives as the maker of general office equipment.
The more modern typewriter shown here on a paperweight was the product of  Smith-Corona.  This company originated in 1886 when four Smith brothers who owned a gun factory in Syracuse, New York, financed a typewriter invented by one of their employees, Alexander T. Brown.  It sold so well that the Smiths stopped making shotguns and concentrated on Brown’s machine.  With the success of its Corona model in 1914, the company reorganized in 1926 and became known primarily as the maker of portable typewriters.

The origins of the typewriter help us remember that often with a mechanical innovation a period of trial and error occurs as the public decides which brand is the most useful.  Many early manufacturers fall out and their models disappear;  a few others survive for years until a new innovation makes them obsolete.  Then  their advertising artifacts take on new meaning and importance as collectible relics.  Note that many typewriter companies featured advertising on pocket mirrors.  That makes sense when one remembers that it was women who largely were using the machines and more likely to look at their faces during the day.  Finally, while buggy whips and hoop skirts may have become extinct, the DNA of the Sholes machine lives on — even as I write this post on my QWERTY keyboard computer.

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