The race to patent an efficient, speedy writing machine for office and domestic use reached a climax at the end of the 19th century.
When they were first introduced to offices, typewriters were used by clerks and businessmen who pecked out memos and letters with one, or at most two fingers. It was not until the first years of the 20th century, when typewriter design became standardized, that the job was done by professional typists.
In the early 1700s, an Englishman, Henry Mill, patented a writing machine. It was never made commercially, but began a race to make an affordable machine that could write faster than the speediest hand. The race was a long one, and many cumbersome contraptions were littered along its course.
The eventual winners were an American trio, Christopher Sholes, Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, whose machine was put into production in 1874 by Remington, a firm of gunsmiths. It had a keyboard with letters and numbers arranged in a four-line pattern (known as Qwerty from the first six letters in the top row), a wooden spacer bar and a vulcanized india-rubber platen or roller.
It only printed capital letters, but this problem was solved in 1878 by the introduction of a shift key on the Remington Model 2. An alternative to the shift key was the 'full keyboard', with separate keys for upper and lower case versions of the same letter. This system was introduced in 1880 by one of Remington's many rivals.
In the early days, typewriter manufacturers used the type-bar mechanism, in which the letters were raised in relief on a metal bar that struck the inked ribbon when the key was pressed. The bars tended to jam together at speed, and alternative systems were launched. James Hammond had the idea of using a revolving cylinder instead of type bars, a precursor of the modern golf-ball typewriter. First produced in 1881, the Hammond was an attractive machine in a wooden carrying case, complete with extra interchangeable cylinders so that users could vary their typefaces.
OLD PORTABLE TYPEWRITERS
Another variation, created by George Blickensderfer in 1889, was sold as the Blick. The letters were on a revolving wheel, similar to today's daisywheel typewriters. The Model S, launched in 1893, was the first portable; earlier typewriters were all desk-top models.
Before 1893, all typewriters were 'blind'; the type bars hit the underside of the platen and users couldn't see what they were writing. A German, Franz Wagner, perfected the first 'visible' machine in the 1890s. Its potential was recognized by John Underwood, who made inked ribbons and carbon paper. The Underwood No.1, introduced in 1897, was the prototype for just about every typewriter manufactured in the next half-century.
Typewriters became standardized as touch typing, which involved memorizing the keyboard, became a recognized commercial skill. Professional touch typists, including many young middle-class women entering the business world for the first time, required a standard keyboard, and all variations on the Underwood pattern of a Qwerty layout and visible writing had disappeared by 1910.
Early typewriters can make a fascinating subject for a collection, both for those with a professional interest in typing and for anyone fascinated by mechanical ingenuity. It pays to specialize. You could concentrate on early office models, on ones with now obsolete
keyboards, on portables or even on electric typewriters, which have a surprisingly long history. The first electric model was made by Blickensderfer in 1902, and came complete with a power treadle so you could continue typing when the mains supply failed.
Among the more famous makes from before World War 1, look for Sholes-Glidden, Remington, Yost, Empire, Densmore, Fay-Sholes, Smith Premier, Bar-Lock and Oliver (all type-bar models); Chicago, Hammond and Crandall (type cylinders); and Blick and Columbia (type-wheel models).
The earliest portable typewriters had separate cases of wood or metal covered with fabric or leather, and these may be missing. Later models had integral plastic cases. If the tops of these are missing it will affect the price.
A specialized field is the collection of machines with historic or literary associations. These range from portable army issue models, which were mounted on the handlebars of a bicycle in World War 1 to hammer out orders in the trenches, to those used by prominent writers. Machines in the latter category can be expensive and shouldn't be considered without convincing written provenance.
Visual condition is important in fixing a price for an old typewriter. A good example should
have bright nickel plating, no sign of rust and most important of all at least three-quarters of the original gold transfer lettering decoration. If any of these vital ingredients are missing, the price of the machine should be reduced accordingly.
The mechanical condition of an old typewriter is not as important, so long as all the original parts are present and intact, and there are no signs of rust. If you intend to use the machine, make sure that you can get a good supply of the appropriate accessories, especially the ribbons or ink pads, which weren't always standard.
Machines retrieved from dusty attics may well be in a filthy condition. Remove the worst of the grime from the type bars and platen with an artist's paint brush or a cotton bud, used dry or dipped in surgical spirit. Preparations such as 3-in-i oil or WD4O can be used to free parts that have seized up.