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Friday, 10 June 2011

On This Day in Typewriter History (XX)

(Two weeks to Typewriter Day)
George Boardman Webb and
his 1888 portable typewriter
It seems our “On This Day” series is starting to make a regular habit of bringing to light hitherto unheralded yet brilliant typewriter inventors. In this way we are able to give these pioneering typewriter design engineers the credit they truly deserve – in some cases, such as this one, where credit has been due for almost a century, and yet strangely withheld. It’s this sort of thing which makes the work which goes into “On This Day” all the more worthwhile.
The latest inventor we’ve uncovered is George Boardman Webb, who on this day in 1891 – exactly 120 years ago today – was granted a patent for which he had applied in March 1888. In the description of his design, Webb indicates he has in mind a much lighter, more portable typewriter than the standard-sized machines of the day.
Sadly, it would appear that Webb’s portable typewriter, like so many other wonderful ideas from would-be if they could-be typewriter inventors of the period, was never made.
Yet George B. Webb was no ordinary nor frustrated typewriter inventor. He is the man who designed one of the most successful typewriters of the era, the Remington No 6. Amazingly, he has been given no recognition for that achievement these past 96 years, since he died on Staten Island in late October 1914. When Webb died, he was described as Remington's "head designer for many years" and its "mechanical expert". But when the first post-Mares typewriter histories came to be written (in 1917 and 1923), Webb's name had already been forgotten. Was he omitted or erased from Remington's story - not to mention the stories of Densmore and the Union cartel, both of which had also used his designs?
What is most striking about the Webb portable design is that he applied for it at about the same time George Canfield Blickensderfer was starting to work on what would ultimately become the Blickensderfer 5, of 1893 (patented, above, 10 months after Webb’s design; compare with the Webb drawing at top). Both the Webb and Blickensderfer machines were to employ a typewheel, leaning forward at an identical angle, and a non-QWERTY keyboard (or in Webb’s case is it some sort of indicator plate?). There seem to be other marked similarities, including the significant reduction in working parts and a targeted simplicity in construction.
Blickensderfer was not actually working on the concept of a portable at the time Webb submitted his patent (above), and it is interesting to speculate whether Webb might have beaten Blickensderfer (below) to the honour of building the first recognised portable if his machine had been made.
When Webb applied for his portable patent, he was living in Newark, New Jersey, and was an independent agent as far as typewriter designs were concerned. His engineering background had been in clock-making  - his first patent, in 1883, was for an electric clock. But – perhaps as a result of his portable typewriter patent, the first of at least eight Webb typewriter designs we know of – his talents quickly came to the attention of Remington, more specifically of the company of Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict.
It is interesting that in the preamble to his specifications for the portable, Webb should state that his description would “enable others skilled in the art to which it appertains to make and use the same.” In other words, I designed it, you (anyone out here) build it.
Webb stated his machine would have a “much fewer number of parts than machines of a like nature [yet] capable of doing the same kind of work, and by thus reducing the number of parts to lessen the cost of construction thereof, to secure a machine more quiet in its action, and which by reason of its construction is lighter and consequently more portable than machines of more complicated construction, one the manipulation of which is easily learned, which is rapid in use, and which works easily and positively”.
Webb was born in Ballston, New York, on August 9, 1846. He died on October 26, 1914. Above is his brief obituary, which appeared in the New York Tribune on October 28.
In a tribute, it was said of Webb, “G.B.W. is a genius, and his friends all recognize that fact. A man of fine mind and a thinking mind, not alone a retentive. He has inherited the mechanical ability of that early John Webb who designed the machinery for weaving in the 14th century; [G.B.W. is a] designer of many intricate machines, for many years mechanical expert with Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict. He designed the famous No 6; and has patents on every machine they ever bought; also designer of a cannon [True! It was patented in 1889]. Well-informed and especially well-versed in science and history.”
Before joining Remington, Webb had worked for the clock-making firm established in 1881 by George E. Hart and D. S. Plumb, which first produced “small carriage, or hand travelling-clocks”. After Hart joined the Waterbury Watch Company, he was replaced first by George E. Marcus, later of jewellers Jacques and Marcus, and then by Webb, who was to be described as “the well known mechanical expert, now with Messrs Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, manufacturers of the Remington Standard Type-writer.”
Most typewriter histories agree that Webb’s Remington No 6, which entered the market in mid-1894, was the pick of the pre-frontstroke machines from that manufacturer. A Condensed History of the Writing Machine (1923) said, “This enjoyed wonderful popularity for more than 15 years …” It described Webb’s improvements on previous Remingtons as “The adjustment of the cylinder, securing greater permanence for the original alignment of the machine; improved spacing mechanism; lighter and much improved paper carriage; improved ribbon movement; adjustable paper guides”.
Paul Lippman in American Typewriters (1992) wrote, “The big success of the Remington understroke line was the Standard No 6, introduced in 1894 and sold until 1914.” Darryl Rehr in Antique Typewriters (1997) said, “The Remington 6 and 7 represented the height of upstrike technology and were extremely popular machines.”
The questions beg to be asked, therefore: Why wasn’t its designer subsequently given the credit for his work, not just on the Remington 6 but on his other typewriters as well? Why was he written out of history?
On this day in 1928, the great Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith (above) completed the first trans-Pacific flight, from Oakland in California, where Richard Polt grew up, to Brisbane, Queensland. Though Kingsford Smith was not a noted typist, he is mentioned here because he was related to the first (and probably only) Blickensderfer typewriter agent in Australia, John Stephen Southerden, of Brisbane (below). Southerden’s father and Kingsford Smith’s grandmother were siblings.
Talking of great aviators, our celebrity typist today is the godson of Orville Wright, actor Robert Cummings, who was born Charles Clarence Robert Orville Cummings in Joplin, Missouri, (site of last month’s devastating tornado) on this day in 1910. Cummings died, aged 80, at Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, on December 2, 1990.
Cummings’ photograph here with a Smith-Corona Skyriter portable appeared on the front page of the September 1955 issue of the Smith-Corona News.
And before we finish with the name Webb in this post, Cummings’ father founded the Jasper County Tuberculosis Hospital in Webb City, Missouri. (His mother was an ordained minister of the Science of Mind.) Also born on this day were British actor George Webb (1911) and American novelist Charles Webb (1939).
Well, Alan and Richard, how's that for six degrees of separation?


Ted said...

looks like you managed to whittle it down to 2 or 3 degrees of seperation :D

small typo?
"Cummings died, aged [b](?)[/b], at Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, on December 2, 1990."

Robert Messenger said...

Thanks, Ted, appreciate that. All fixed now.

Machines of Loving Grace said...

A veritable web of connections! ;-)

Robert Messenger said...

Very good, Alan, like it. I'm a bit slow this morning, it took me a minute or two to get it. What webs we weave!