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Saturday, 7 May 2011

Lee S.Burridge and the Underwood 3 Portable Typewriter

For almost 90 years now, it has been generally assumed that the brilliant little Underwood three-bank portable typewriter, a special favourite with many collectors, was designed by an Underwood factory team, a group of nameless men. Not so. It turns out the Underwood 3 was the creation of the great Lee Spear Burridge. (The picture from Richard Plot's The Classic Typewriter Page above shows the best angle to compare Burridge's original drawing with the reality.) 

Until now, Burridge has only been associated with Sun typewriters (photos below are of the Sun 2 and Underwood 3 from my collection).
The Underwood 3 went into production in November 1919, 4 ½ years after Burridge died. But the first applications for patents for the design were made in September 1915, four months after Burridge’s death. They were made on Lee Burridge’s behalf by his brother, Francis Ogden Burridge (the attorney for some of the applications was another typewriter inventor, Burnham C. Stickney).
(In property law, a mesne assignment is an intermediate assignment in a series of assignments which occur before the final assignment. In this case, Lee Burridge's invention is being assigned to Underwood, in January 1919, by Frank Burridge. Presumbly before Underwood went into production in November 1919, the assignment would have become final.)
As a great lover of the Underwood 3’s ingenuous design, it has been most frustrating for me over the years to be unable to pin the portable’s design to one person, or even persons. We know George Canfield Blickensderfer was solely responsible for the Blickensderfer 5, that Frank S. Rose developed the Standard Folding which, under Otto Petermann’s direction, became the Corona 3, and we know John H.Barr led the Remington team which came up with the first Remington portable. But until now, the Underwood 3’s origins have remained a mystery.
Last night, while scrolling through hundreds of patents associated with Underwood, I came across the Burridge designs. My eyes almost popped out! From first glance, it is unmistakeably the Underwood 3.
The misconception possibly stems from the information Underwood supplied the editors of the 1923 A Condensed History of the Writing Machine, in which no mention is made of Burridge’s design.
Indeed, leading British typewriter collector and historian Richard Milton, on his extensively researched and well-written website Portable Typewriters (photo above), says, “But, with great ingenuity, the Underwood design team also managed to get the machine down to the same size as the Corona but without the need for a folding carriage. The 1919 Underwood Standard Portable is a masterpiece of engineering in miniature and is still today one of the easiest machines to type on ever produced.”
To compound this, Wikipedia rephrases Richard's words, saying, “To compete with Corona portables in the home market, Underwood responded with its own 3-bank portable in 1919. With their ingenious design, the Underwood engineers eliminated the need for a folding carriage while managed to get the machine down to the same size as the Corona No 3.”
Nonetheless, I could not agree more with Richard about his reference to a “masterpiece of engineering in miniature” and in fact have quoted that line many, many times when writing and talking about the Underwood 3. All the while, the lack of an individual designer's name gnawed away at me. Now, happily, I am able to give credit for the masterpiece to the master, the genius to whom it is due, Lee Spear Burridge.
My guess is that Underwood followed a similar course of action to the one they took in 1895. Back then, when Underwood started making typewriters, it bought the rights to Franz Xaver Wagner’s “visible” machine, which Wagner had already been making for two years. In late 1918, when Underwood saw the vast portable typewriter market Corona had created with its folding machine, the company went looking for a portable design and found Burridge’s patents.
Burridge had come up with the design, but died soon afterwards, in the early years of World War I. By the time the war ended and typewriter production returned to normal, Burridge’s design had been sitting gathering dust for more than three years. Presumably Underwood bought the rights to it from Frank Burridge.
This would explain the reapplications of the patents from July 1918. Canadian patent applications from 1920 are shown below:
Richard Milton explains, “Underwood executives were worried. The company had been casting anxious glances at the potential market that its new upstart rival, Corona, had created and exploited so successfully over the previous decade. The future might well lie with portable typewriters. Underwood thus set itself to produce its own portable machine and become dominant in portables too.
“The design team adopted the same basic engineering approach as Corona, with three banks of keys and a double carriage shift to get the necessary extra capitals and figures. But, with great ingenuity, the Underwood design team also managed to get the machine down to the same size as the Corona but without the need for a folding carriage …
“Underwood advertising in the 1920s placed great emphasis on the convenience and efficiency provided by [its] lightness and portability.
“In the early 1920s, Underwood began to make inroads into Corona's portable market, just as it had into Remington's desk machine market two decades earlier. But while brilliantly designed from an engineering standpoint, there was a marketing problem built into the Underwood portable … When, at the end of 1920, Remington unveiled its portable machine, with a full sized four-bank keyboard and only a single, very light shift, Underwood was forced to respond and its designers produced a four-bank version launched in 1926. The three-bank machine continued in production until 1929, and its four-bank successor became one of the most successful portable typewriters …”
Lee Spear Burridge was born in Paris, France, on September 22, 1861, the son of dentist Levi Spear and Emma Frances (nee Ogden) Burridge. He was educated at Tunbridge Wells in England and moved to New York in 1878. He and Frank Burridge established the Sun Typewriter Company in 1887, having already patented an index typewriter two years earlier.

Ray Thomas wrote in Typex that Burridge “directed much of his efforts at simplifying the parts and movements of the typewriter … Some of his innovations over the years were: a new inking system combining a small self-supplying ink roll with a type-bar; a counter-balance type bar, permitting a very slight and delicate touch to the keys; a visible machine; [and] a special typebar machine operating 78 characters with only 10 keys.”
Lee S. Burridge invented a vast range of things other than typewriters, from moving toys to a helicopter to a switching device for railway lines and a bicycle. But he is best remembered for the 1901 No 2 Sun typewriter, which was advertised as "the only standard typewriter suitable for travellers". Burridge was the first owner of an aeroplane in New York and founded the Aeronautical Society, of which he was president for many years (obituary from The New York Times).
Lee Burridge died at age 54 in New York City on May 4, 1915. His estate was appraised at $91,000. Unmarried, he was survived by Frank. The brothers were grandsons of Samuel Gouverneur Ogden, a New York merchant based in Bordeaux in France, and his wife Eliza (nee Lewis) Ogden. Through their grandmother, the Burridges were the great-great-grandsons of Francis Lewis, signer of the Declaration of Independence.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: For images used from the websites of Richard Polt, Richard Milton, Paul Robert, Alan Seaver, Will Davis, Wim Van Rompuy and Georg Sommeregger.



shordzi said...

What a great discovery! It feels good to see that due tribute can finally be paid to the inventor.
Time to update my Underwood 3 page.

Rob Bowker said...

Completely agree to it being a great machine to type on - and good to read your detective work. I especially like the case. It has one of the loveliest catches around. I suppose those original case designers are even more unsung.

Richard Milton said...

Congratulations, Bob, on great detective work and also for finding the missing pieces of the Underwood Portable jigsaw. I'll certainly update The Portable Typewriter Website now I know who really designed this little jewel.

Richard Milton

Duke said...

Thank you for all your hard work. I have an Underwood three - bank portable typewriter in it's case. I tried it once about 20 years ago and then put it away. It worked well then, and is in almost perfect condition. The case is in great shape too but no key. I only just took it out of hiding. It was patented November 9, 1915. I would greatly appreciate any info you could share on this typewriter.

J Duke

Spiderwebz said...

Wonderful story! I recently adopted an Underwood portable and it's now proud to be my smallest pre-war portable. No need of competing the Corona (yet?).