AFTER DECADES OF EXPERIMENTATION IN MANY COUNTRIES, THE FIRST PRACTICAL and fairly reliable typewriters arrived on the market in the early 1870s. Over the next 15 to 20 years, they became established in American offices, and soon they were considered indispensable. Yet they were ungainly beasts. The first widely popular model—the Remington No. 1, invented by Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden—was built into a table, like a sewing machine (in fact, it was produced in a Remington sewingmachine factory), and had a pedal to operate the carriage return.
By the late 1880s typewriters had settled down to what we think of as their classic size, about 30 pounds and a foot tall. Most had a singularly annoying trait: They printed underneath the roller, so typists couldn’t see what they had typed until several lines later. Smaller, lightweight machines were available, but many of them had no keyboards at all. These index typewriters, as they were called, usually had a single lever or button that would be slid along a row of typebars to the chosen letter and then punched. They were good for about 10 words a minute at most.
George Canfield Blickensderfer, born in 1850 and raised in Pennsylvania and Ohio, thought he could do better. In the 188Os he was running a successful business, selling a logistics system his father had invented for use by large stores. In it, goods and money from scattered counters were brought by a conveyor system to a central location, where the goods were packaged and change was made before being returned to the counters. Calling on customers took him around the country by train, and carrying a big office machine along would have been impossible. He began to consider how a typewriter might be made portable.
By 1889 he had sold his business and patented the basis of an innovative typewriter. He moved to Stamford, Connecticut, raised funds, and over the next few years built several prototypes of his design. Its most important feature was the use of a single type element—like the “golf ball” on an IBM Selectric, except cylindrical—instead of having a separate typebar for each key, as on most typewriters of the era. The cylinder, about 1 3/8 inches in diameter and 5/8 of an inch tall, was made of vulcanite, a hard rubber.
Blickensderfer was not the first to create such a typewriter. As early as the 183Os a number of inventors in America and abroad designed type-element machines, in some cases constructing crude prototypes. In 1863 John Jonathan Pratt of Alabama built a machine with type on a wheel, which was rotated into position and hit with a hammer when the pianolike keys were struck. Since prospects for entrepreneurs in the Confederacy were not good, he took his “Pterotype” to England, where he built several more models but could not make them work reliably. Nonetheless, Pratt left his mark on typewriter history, for an 1867 Scientific American article about his design inspired Christopher Latham Sholes to invent his own writing machine.
The type-element idea was finally commercialized by James Bartlett Hammond, whose clever design, with type on a curved plate instead of a cylinder, made its debut in 1881 and sold hundreds of thousands. To settle the question of priority, Hammond paid Pratt a royalty for the use of his idea. That same year, Lucien S. Crandall put on sale a similar design with a long, cylindrical “type sleeve” that rotated and moved along its axis to the proper point.
Blickensderfer aimed to build a machine that would be mechanically superior to the Hammond and Crandall and portable as well. A few years’ work yielded a design in which striking a key rotated the type wheel to the appropriate position, then tilted it downward, brushing a tiny inked roller along the way, to impress a letter onto the paper. Half the keys turned the element clockwise and half counterclockwise. Rotating the type wheel just the right amount required a subtle mechanism built around an unusual heart-shaped gear. Blickensderfer must have been proud of that gear, for an engraving of it, surrounded by leaves, was the company’s logo.
The printing occurred in full view of the typist, not under the platen, making the machine a so-called “visible writer.” Later innovations would include adjustable vertical spacing, simplified margin setting, keys that purportedly responded to a “natural touch” rather than a “sharp strike,” and a feature that allowed the user to strike the space bar simultaneously with the last letter of a word, reducing keystrokes by an estimated one-fifth. The company estimated that an experienced user could do as much work on the Blickensderfer in six hours as he could in nine hours on a conventional machine.
The machine weighed about 10 pounds and fitted into a wooden carrying case, making it the first true portable. Since the type wheels were replaceable, the Blickensderfers could type in italics, script, and foreign alphabets. A later model, the Blick Oriental, would even have a right-to-left option for Arabic and Hebrew. A company brochure extolled the Blickensderfer as “a machine yielding unequalled results from unequalled simplicity, the maximum in minimo of mechanics.” Its 250 moving parts were said to be one-fifth to one-tenth the number found in typebar machines.
By 1893 Blickensderfer was ready to show his invention to the world, so he took a booth at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Throughout the fair an attractive young woman sat at a desk clacking away on one of his machines. The combination was a smash hit. The documents she produced looked sharp, like letterpress printing, because the type wheel made direct contact with the paper instead of stamping through a ribbon.
JUST AS UNCONVENTIONAL AS THE MACHINE’S TYPE-WHEEL design was its keyboard. Blickensderfer, like many inventors before and since, thought the standard Universal ( QWERTY ) setup was a dud. He called his improved arrangement the Scientific keyboard, though it was based closely on the Ideal keyboard, which had first appeared in Hammond’s machine a decade earlier. A QWERTY keyboard was available as an option if the customer signed a statement acknowledging that he or she was buying an inferior product. This mixture of technological innovation and disdain for the unconverted may explain why the Blickensderfer typewriter reminds some people of the Apple computer.
The advantage of the Scientific keyboard was that the 10 letters on its bottom row ( DHIATENSOR ) made up 70 percent of written English and 85 percent of word endings, the latter figure being important because the bottom row was closest to the space bar. Blickensderfer placed great stress on these statistics because, in the 1890s, typing was still thought of as an offshoot of typesetting, and it was natural to use similar techniques for both. Typists were taught to keep their hands at the bottom of the keyboard and use only two fingers from each hand. When one teacher advocated the use of three fingers, she was loudly denounced. For this reason, a Blickensderfer brochure proudly proclaimed that the Scientific keyboard was “arranged on the same principle as a printer’s case.”
However, even as Blickensderfer was promoting his improved keyboard, a new way of typing was starting to take hold, one designed specifically for the typewriter instead of being adapted from the printshop. Touch typing was demonstrated dramatically in 1888, when a court stenographer named Frank E. McGurrin won $500 by defeating Louis Taub, the reigning speed champion, in a widely publicized typing duel in Cincinnati. In defiance of the current orthodoxy, McGurrin rested his fingers on the central row of letter keys instead of at the bottom. He amazed observers with his ability to type without looking at the keyboard—even blindfolded, if necessary. Taub, who used the old method, was slower with dictation or memorized copy and even more so when transcribing written work, where he had to pause after every few words to look at the keyboard.
Despite McGurrin’s dramatic victory, many typists still saw his method as essentially a stunt. Not until after the turn of the century did touch typing completely replace hunt-and-peck in the nation’s typing schools. And as long as the old method remained in use, the Scientific keyboard made sense, since confining the hands’ motion in as small an area as possible could genuinely boost the efficiency of a high-speed operator. In touch typing, by contrast, there is no advantage to concentrating the most common letters at the bottom.
AT THE COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION, BLICKENSDERFER SHOWED two versions of his machine, the No. 1 and the No. 3, but neither made it into production, and none are known to have survived. He had already patented an improved model, and in 1893 it went on sale as the No. 5. Supply lagged behind demand, however, and the company did not begin producing in volume until 1896, when the deluxe No. 7, with superior mechanisms for spacing, margins, and tabulation, was introduced. At $50 for the No. 7 and $35 for the No. 5, sales were substantial. Over the next two decades-plus, Blickensderfer sold nearly 200,000 machines.
As sales piled up, Blickensderfer kept the technological changes coming. Most significantly, he changed the superstructure of some models from steel to aluminum. Until very recently aluminum had been too expensive for use in anything except luxury items. But since the discovery in 1886 of an electrolytic refining method, the supply had shot up and the price had accordingly declined, particularly after the opening of the first hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls. Blickensderfer took advantage of the material’s increased availability to produce the No. 6 or “Featherweight Blick,” which weighed a mere five pounds. It was more compact than the earlier versions; advertisements called it “The Five-Pound Private Secretary.”
Unfortunately, the type-wheel design was not as much of an advantage as it had first appeared. Conventional typebar machines got sturdier and less prone to jamming, and as the years progressed, it became obvious that they were faster. Blickensderfer knew it, and he took one last stab at salvaging his beloved innovation. In 1902 he produced the Blickensderfer Electric, which ran on a 1/40 horsepower motor. Here again he was not the first to bring his new idea to market, though he was close. Thomas Edison had patented an electric typewriter in 1871, but it was never manufactured. The Cahill Writing Machine Company was the first to put an electric model on the market, in 1901, but it sold only 40 units in eight years. (That company’s founder, Thaddeus Cahill, would go on to make pioneering inventions in the fields of electronic music, wireless telephony, and wire-transmitted radio.)
Advertisements praised the light touch required to type on a Blickensderfer Electric, which would eliminate the “typewriter paralysis” that resulted from banging the keys of a manual machine. It came with a treadle that could be used to generate electricity when current failed. At $125, however, it turned out to be an expensive flop, probably because electricity was still far from universally available, especially when one was traveling.
However poorly it sold, the Blick Electric was well engineered and finely built. The Milwaukee Public Museum owns one of the five still known to exist, and in 1995 Bob Aubert, a wellknown typewriter collector and electrical engineer, spent several days studying the machine and preparing it for operation. Using a rectifier to convert the AC power supply to DC, he slowly and carefully brought it up to full voltage. The machine started up, and he was immediately able to type.
By the mid-1910s the company’s fortunes were declining. The type-wheel design was becoming obsolete, and the Scientific keyboard, which had failed to find an audience, was abandoned. Blickensderfer finally gave in and introduced a conventional typebar model, which was built by another company and sold as the Blick Bar. The firm enjoyed a small triumph with a musical-notation typewriter called the Noco-Blick, the first successful machine for this complicated task, but the market for it was limited.
World War I kept the company afloat for another few years, during which the factory was switched over to making military gear (including a device George Blickensderfer designed for loading cartridges into machine guns), first for the European powers and then for the United States. The real blow came in 1917, when the founder died at the age of 67. An obituary reported, “Mr. Blickensderfer’s intense thought on his later inventions resulted in injury to his nervous system, which probably hastened the end.” He left no children.
His replacement at the company, an inventor named Lyman Roberts, introduced another typebar machine, the Blick Ninety, but it was too little too late. By 1921 the type-wheel machines were out of production. The company declared bankruptcy not long after, and in 1926 its remaining assets were absorbed by Remington, which produced low-cost type-wheel machines called the Baby Rem and the Rem Blick. They weren’t successful either.
As was true with the automobile industry, in the early days of typewriters scores of manufacturers tried their hands at the new technology. Kanzler, Oliver, Williams, Fox, and many, many other companies started with great dreams, flourished, and then expired, usually a decade or two into the twentieth century. Collectors today prize these long-forgotten models—some for their beauty, some for their efficiency, some for functioning in unusual ways. Yet almost every typewriter collector and historian has a particular soft spot for the Blickensderfer. From the doughty founder with his unwieldy Teutonic name to the long list of forward-looking innovations to the obsession with piling up bits of saved time, Blickensderfer embodies a particular moment in American history, a time when idealism went hand in hand with technology, inventors were the new aristocracy, and efficiency was going to save the world, one keystroke at a time.