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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

On This Day in Typewriter History (XXXIX)

June 28
Alex Donnelly’s Uncrowned Jewel
Often the drawing of a proposed typewriter will pop up in the PDF of a 19th century US patent, and one just has to shake one’s head and mutter, “Uh, uh … no way, José!”
But in the case of Alexander G. Donnelly’s Crown, the immediate reaction was, “This just HAD to be made!”
The Donnelly Crown looks, at least on paper, too finely and intricately drawn, too beautifully detailed and far too deeply engrossing NOT to have gone into production.
Donnelly, of New York, was issued with four patents for his designs on this day in 1887. It may well be that the four patents covered  variations on the same theme. At least two types appear to emerge here: one with the keytops of top of the crown (above), the other with the keys on the side of it:
G.C.Mares, in his The History of the Typewriter (1909), says it wasn’t “made commercially”.
The cover story in the March 2010 edition of ETCetera, by Uwe H.Breker and Jürgen Berndt, seemed to support Mares, since the authors felt what they had in their hands was “a prototype only, but it was finished with an extraordinary level of precision quite atypical of the office machine industry in this period”.
Yet entries on this machine in the 1923 A Condensed History of the Writing Machine, as well as in Michael H. Adler’s Antique Typewriters (1997), indicate the Donnelly Crown was manufactured.
If it was, even in very limited numbers, the one Uwe and Jürgen so lovingly restored may well be the only surviving example. Images of this beauty are from the Uwe Breker Collection, as they appeared in the March 2010 ETCetera.
Until the ETCetera article, Donnelly’s Crown had been thoroughly lost in the mists of time - partly, perhaps, because it had been overshadowed by another Crown, one designed by no less a typewriter inventor than the great Byron Alden Brooks.
Brooks actually patented his original pointer design in the same year as Donnelly, but may have held off going into production for a year because of his many other projects, or to avoid confusion with the Donnelly design.
As it was, the Donnelly Crown was reportedly made (and “promoted”, according to Adler) by the Crown Type-Writer Manufacturing Company of Albany, while the Brooks Crown was picked up by the National Meter Company in 1894 (as seen in the above example).
A Condensed History described Donnelly’s Crown as “A complicated mechanism … Its operating and printing mechanism was enclosed in a circular shaped box, the typebars standing upright and striking down on to the platen below. He typebars were peculiarly shaped. The keyboard was arranged in a circle on top of the enclosing box and while requiring some training to operate was rather slow.
“Very interesting is the fact that a word counter was built into the Crown, the first and only ever to contain such a device integrally. It retailed at $20.”
What is all the more interesting about this is that a typewriter word counter (below) was first patented by Charles T. Brown, of Chicago, on the very same date as Donnelly’s Crown – except six years earlier! More on that later.
Adler wrote of the Donnelly Crown, “An ingenious if complex solution to providing upper and lower case on typebars in a circular formation … In this design the lower ends of the typebars were geared to a ring so that a slight twist one way or the other selected the desired case on the entire circle, which was mounted obliquely above the platen. The whole thing resembled a crown … Also reported marketed under the name Donnelly.”
Here is Mares’s entry on the Donnelly:
On his The Classic Typewriter Page website, Richard Polt looks at the Crary and says it is “a grotesquely beautiful thing which, it seems, was just too strange to survive, even in the wildly diverse typewriter kingdom of the late 19th century”. Richard adds, “The circular keyboard was used on some other failures - the Daw and Tait of 1884, and the Crown (also known as the Donnelly) of 1887 - but also on the Lambert, which was moderately successful.”
As for Charles T. Brown’s typewriter word counter (above), patented on this day in 1881 (and based on a Sholes and Glidden, one might add), Brown explained, “My invention relates to the counting of words, as they are printed or written, on machines known as ‘type-writers’ and ‘printing-machines’ … and the objects of my machine are, first, to count the words correctly and automatically as the work is being done on the machine; second, the keeping of a register thereof.
“The use of type-writers has increased within a few years to such an extent that any mechanism that will automatically keep an account of the number of words written or printed must have value. Much of the writing or printing by means of type-writing machines is done at an agreed price for each hundred words. As no automatic counting device has been in use, it has been necessary to count the words to arrive at the number, and in this way a considerable amount of time has been unavoidably consumed. It is almost impossible to count words in the ordinary way without making frequent errors, while my improved automatic device is so constructed that perfect accuracy in counting is insured, and the time heretofore necessarily devoted to counting is thus saved.
“I am aware that numerators and registers of different forms of construction and intended for various purposes have long been in use, some of which have worked automatically; but as far as my knowledge and investigation extend, they have all differed quite materially from my form of construction, and in no instance have been capable of the use for which my invention is intended."
Italian dramatist, novelist and short story writer Luigi Pirandello (below) was born in Agrigento, Sicily, on this day in 1867. Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1934, for his "bold and brilliant renovation of the drama and the stage". Pirandello's tragic farces are often seen as forerunners for Theatre of the Absurd. He died in Bosio, Rome, on December 10, 1936, aged 69.
On this day in 1964, Malcolm X formed the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. On April 25 this year, David Reminck had a very interesting article published in The New Yorker about Alex Haley writing Malcolm X’s autobiography, which he was still working on at the time Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. These photographs were taken during that period:


notagain said...

If they'd done the outer ring in brass it'd be perfect!

Robert Messenger said...

I have to say I share your love of things brass. I have been exchanging emails with Richard Polt about this machine. I was wondering whether the actual "crown" on the restored Breker prototype is missing. Maybe that was made of brass. If it was, you're right, this would have looked truly spectacular.

Sandra Wolfe said...
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