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Monday, 30 April 2012

Future Shock: How Blickensderfer Developed his Electric Typewriter

The 112th anniversary of George Canfield *Blickensderfer’s first application for a patent for an electric typewriter passed last week, on April 26.
Today, April 30, marks 109 years since one of his last applications related to this wondrous machine.
As Paul Robert explains it in his book The Five-Pound Secretary, it is “a complicated patent designed to allow the typing speed to be increased by allowing a key to be struck before the previous motion of the typewheel has been completed”.
Blickensderfer himself said the “the actuating mechanism for the type mechanism operates so quickly [on a power-operated machine] that the operator is able to strike the keys in rapid succession, thus making a higher speed possible than could be attained if it were necessary to await the return of the key before striking the next.”
As one can see from the advertising booklet for the Blick Electric, speed of typing was the No 1 motivating force behind this breakthrough invention – a typewriter decades ahead of its time.
Cover photograph from ETCetera No 33, December 1995, with an article which is downloadable here.
One hundred and ten years after it first reached a rather bewildered marketplace, the Blick Electric continues to fascinate.
I understand one of these exceptionally rare typewriters sold at auction for a six-figure sum.
Many theories have been put forward as to why the Blick Electric was not the commercial success it deserved to be, from a still-widespread fear of electricity to an elimination of the “human element”.
One of the more logical is put forward by Paul Robert at his Virtual Typewriter Museum, “that production was halted because it wasn't possible to serialise production. After all, electricity in general hadn't been standardised at the time. Currents differed from city to city.”
Whatever the real reason, there seems no doubt whatsoever that the Blick Electric simply came much too much before its time – perhaps by as much as 60 years.
It was a case of “Future Shock” alarming potential buyers.
Paul Robert devotes a chapter to the Blick Electric in The Five-Pound Secretary.
He says it was launched at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in September 1901 (the exposition opened on May 1). The typewriter’s cost was a steep (for the time) $125.
Arthur Goodrich, in his World’s Work, wrote, “Electricity has come to the aid of the typewriter operator. There has always been an atmosphere of weariness about the type-writing room of a business house, for the operators have been compelled not only to guide the instrument but to use physical force to make it perform its work with accuracy and uniformity. In the new electrical machine the work is done by electric current …
“The operator plays upon it as on a piano. The keys dip one third as much and the pressure required one-tenth as much as the traditional machine. He need not worry about gaining uniform touch. Electricity does that for him. Nor need he take his fingers from one key before pressing down the next. He can give his time entirely to speed, and in that, too, the current helps him, for he can space simultaneously with the last letter of each word, saving an action a word. The time formerly taken for releasing each key is also gained. The light action makes it possible for him to use all his fingers easily on the keys. In manifolding, the electricity simplifies the process. Instead of pressing the keys with additionally hard stroke he has only to set the handle to allow more current to energise the magnet. A dozen copies can thus be printed with the ease of one. The printing is always uniform. Better work is done more rapidly, and it seems that typewriting need be health-wearing drudgery no longer.”
As Paul Robert wrote, the functions of the Blick …
The first machine had a slighted curved keyboard surrounded by an aluminium spacebar, like the manual Blick 7.
Paul Robert says that in 1903 Blickensderfer patented major improvements. The patent application for these was actually made in December 1901, straight after the Pan-American Exposition, and issued 13 months later. On later models, the keyboard was enclosed by either a curved front around a curved DHIATENSOR keyboard or a straight front and straight QWERTY keyboard.
Paul Lippman wrote in American Typewriters (1992):
G.C.Mares wrote in The History of the Typewriter (1909):

*Some asinine idiot has changed Blickensderfer's name on Wikipedia to Sir Cody Lovell Blickensderfer. It's beyond me why anyone would want to do something so cretinous.


Richard P said...

Sigh .... what a wonderful machine. I wish it had been a success so that we could all own one today.

I wonder why Mares says it's "almost the last word in power-driven machines of the typewheel class." Was there any other typewriter in that class??

Pssst: the December issue of ETCetera -- our 100th issue -- will, if all goes well, include stories about the Blick Electric and the even earlier Cahill Electric.

Dwayne F. said...

I'd love to know how this fit in the broader scope of technology history. When introduced, there was barely an electrical grid to speak of. The first AC generating plants went online in the 1890s. In 1900, the war between Edison (DC) and Westinghouse (using Tesla's AC) was at its peak with Edison running a vicious propaganda campaign about the dangers of AC electricity.

I know it would be impossible to see one of these in person. Still, it would be wonderful to bask in the before-its-time technological glow. As always, thanks for your comprehensive history on these wonderful machines.