Thursday, April 11, 2024

On This Day in the Old West: April 12

 Today we’ll celebrate an event that made secretaries happy across the country: the invention of a truly portable typewriter. On April 12, 1892, Patent No. 472,692 was issued to George C. Blickensderfer of Stamford, Connecticut, for a “type writing machine.” The Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company eventually became one of the world’s largest typewriter manufacturers.

The concept of a mechanical typewriter dates back at least to 1714, when Englishman Henry Mill filed a vaguely-worded patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.” However, the first machine that actually worked was built by Italian Pellegrino Turri in 1808 for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni de Fivizzano. The details and appearance of this typewriter are unknown, but specimens of letters written by the Countess on it still exist. 

Various inventors in Europe and the United States tried creating typewriters in the 19th Century, but successful commercial production only began with the “writing ball” of Danish Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1870. This device looked a little like a pincushion. Much more influential, in the long run, was the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, which began production in late 1873 and appeared on the American market in 1874.

The Sholes & Glidden typed only in capital letters, and it introduced the QWERTY keyboard, which is still with us today. This keyboard was designed, so they say, to separate frequently-used pairs of typebars so that the typebars would not clash and get stuck at the printing point. The Sholes & Glidden was a decorative machine, with painted flowers and decals. It looked a bit like a sewing machine, as it was actually manufactured in the sewing machine department of the Remington arms company. It had limited success, but its successor, the Remington, soon became a dominant presence in the typewriting industry.

The Sholes & Glidden, like many early typewriters, is an understroke or “blind” writer, where the typebars are arranged in a circular basket underneath the platen (the printing surface) and type on the bottom of the platen. This means the typewriter (typist) has to lift up the carriage to see her work. It wasn’t until 1891 when the Daugherty Visible became the first frontstroke typewriter to go into production. In this model, the typebars rest below the platen and hit the front of it. With the Underwood of 1895, this style of typewriter began to gain ascendancy.

George Blickensderfer’s typewriter used a radical, minimalist design that reduced the number of moving parts from 2,500 to 250, improving reliability and reducing the weight by one-fourth. It worked on the principle of a revolving type wheel and swapped the QWERTY “universal” keyboard for a proprietary DHIATENSOR keyboard layout. Blickensderfer claimed this layout was the best option for efficient typing, since it clustered the ten most popular letters used in the English language on the first row. This argument, however, didn’t catch on, and in order to remain competitive, Blickensderfer typewriters began offering universal keyboard layouts in the early 20th Century.

The ”Blick” portable typewriter was easier to produce, transport, and operate, and soon became an international bestseller. In order to keep up with demand, Blickensderfer opened a factory on Atlantic Street in Stamford in 1896. Thanks in part to his efforts, Connecticut became an international hub of typewriter manufacturing and home to some of the world’s most prolific typewriter companies, including Underwood and Royal. 

Your characters may not have been typewriters, which is what typists were called at that time, but they would probably have been exposed to typewritten business papers even if they weren’t familiar with the process involved in creating them. 


J.E.S. Hays

1 comment:

  1. As usual, a wonderful look back at things we take for granted. Thank you.