Six days to Typewriter DayAs we approach Typewriter Day, next Thursday, there will be much written and said about Christopher Latham Sholes and the team which gave us the first practical typewriter. All the usual suspects will be rounded up: Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soule, James Densmore, George Washington Newton Yost, Philo Remington, Matthias Schwalbach, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Even possibly Charles Kleinsteuber. But almost inevitably one name will be missing: that of Walter Jay Barron.
Barron was James Densmore’s stepson, but, as Richard N.Current pointed out in his dispassionate and detailed The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954), he was not someone who always sided with Densmore. Indeed, as the history of the typewriter developed in the last quarter of the 19th century, Barron was to have many more dealings with James’s brother Amos, and Amos and James certainly didn't always see eye-to-eye.
In March 1944 the Wisconsin Magazine of History published an article by Frederic Heath, a curator of the Wisconsin Historical Society and president of the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Heath was a close boyhood friend of Sholes’s son Zalmon and got to know Christopher Latham Sholes quite well in the last years of his life.
In his memoirs, Heath mentions contact between Barron and Sholes well into the late 1880s. Indeed, as Current records, Barron was the last of the "original team" to see Sholes, in the weeks before he died on February 17, 1890. Barron and an attorney for Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict took some models and visited an ailing Sholes in Milwaukee in an attempt to persuade him to sign off on patents. Scholes refused.
But Barron had been involved in the Sholes typewriter project from a much earlier stage, from at least 1871.
Heath’s story, as most did to that time, tended to paint Sholes in a most favourable light, without giving too much credit to others involved in the production of the Sholes and Glidden. After all, the editorial of that issue of the magazine, by Edward P. Alexander, was basically aimed at placing Sholes in a list of Wisconsin’s 10 greatest inventors (at No 6). And great inventors usually worked alone.
Current’s book, in part based on documents supplied by the Densmore family, was the first to really start redressing the balance and changing the perspectives of Sholes and James Densmore.
The full story of Sholes’s disillusionment with the project was told; James Densmore’s perseverance and his various run-ins with Sholes and his own brothers were outlined; and the exact nature of the financial transactions involving Sholes, Densmore, Yost and the Remingtons was explained for perhaps the first time.
As he worked on his book, Current contributed his own views on “The Original Typewriter Enterprise 1867-1873” to the Wisconsin Magazine of History. It was published in June 1949, five years before his book came out, and was a clear pointer to what his interpretation of the relevant events was going to be:
Walter Jay Barron was indeed “inventive”, as Current says. Among his many “inventions” were a machine for separating gold, a trolley for electric railways, a ticketholder and a sash fastener. But typewriters were definitely his No 1 area of expertise.
As early as 1871, Barron was helping Sholes, Schwalbach and Glidden build Sholes prototypes in Milwaukee. And in June 1872, James Densmore had sent Barron to Washington to fix one of the Sholes prototypes that James Ogilvie Clephane (below) was testing (or "deconstructing'). This was even before Yost became involved.
Barron’s first typewriter patent was issued on January 22, 1878, in the year of the Remington No 2, and it was assigned to The Typewriter Company, established by James Densmore and his brother Amos Densmore and Yost in 1874.
Between 1878 and 1913, a period of 35 years, Barron was issued with 25 more patents for typewriters, of which 15 were assigned either solely or in part to Amos Densmore, or to the Densmore Typewriter Company (which came into being in 1902; Densmore & Densmore had made the early Densmore typewriters in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1891).
Five of these (in 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907) were co-designed with Henry W. Merritt, one of the Springfield typewriter-inventing brothers; the other, Mortimer G. Merritt, was responsible for the 1890 linear plunger typewriter, called the Merritt and also manufactured in Springfield.
Henry later moved to Syracuse, where he designed the Monarch typewriter to be built there from 1904.
Another four of Barron’s typewriter designs were assigned to the Union Typewriter Company (a cartel involving Remington, Densmore, Yost and Smith Premier which was formed in 1893 as the Union Writing Machine Company; it changed its name in 1908).
And there were also Barron patents assigned to the Yost and the American Writing Machine companies, to Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, and at least two to Remington itself.
Barron was pretty much the man in the middle of almost all the main players in the first 30 years of typewriters.
He was with Yost when Yost formed the Caligraph Patent Company in 1880, and helped Yost and Franz Xaver Wagner design the Caligraph typewriter.
Then he worked with Wagner under the direction of Amos Densmore and the backing of Emmett Densmore to design the Densmore typewriters.
While Wagner’s involvement in the early Densmore typewriters has been widely recognised, the patent we are about to look at does not mention Wagner, and pretty much suggests Barron was responsible for the features which stood the Densmore apart from its rivals at the time it was manufactured, in 1891.
Interestingly, this patent for a Barron typewriter, which was issued on this day in 1890, was assigned to the Amos Densmore and to C. Godfrey Patterson. The Irish-born Patterson, a journalist, newspaper owner and corporate lawyer, has a small but significant place in typewriter history. He made his name in New York legal circles during the court battle between Remington and Yost over patent issues (it was settled out of court).
Although this design differs in certain aspects to the first model Densmore typewriter, it fits the general description. Paul Lippman in American Typewriters (1992) said the No 1 Densmore “is distinguished chiefly by having a removable carriage that runs on ball bearings, and bearings in its typebar mechanism. The Densmore’s pioneering of ball bearings in typewriter design led to their adoption by many subsequent machines.” This image of the Densmore with the carriage detached is from Paul Robert's The Virtual Typewriter Museum.
In his specifications for this patent, Barron said, “The object of my improvement is, first, to permit the platen to be raised independently of the paper-carriage when it is desirable to look at the writing produced; second, to have the bearings of the platen retained by adjustable springs against a rigidly-supported feed-roll, and thereby permit manifolding to be as evenly printed as upon a single sheet; third, to retain the line-space lever immovable while raising the platen; fourth, to pivot the front scale so that it can be pushed against the platen and take the place of two scales; fifth, to provide the typebar with an intermediate lever to throw it up and a spring to throw it down; sixth, to provide means for retaining the key-levers connected with the frame at three points …”
So there you have it: a very broad series of hints that, after all, the Densmore is a Barron design more so than a Wagner one. The biggest hint of all: Barron applied for this patent in January 1887; the patent for which Barron, Wagner and Amos Densmore are all mentioned as joint designers was applied for in October 1889 and issued in October 1892, more than two years later. You be the judge*.
*In the meantime, here is what the experts say (giving a prime example of how one mistake can be compounded by repetition over the years, and thus it becomes conventional, if incorrect, wisdom):
Mares (1909): No claim.
Oden (1917): James Densmore, who had nothing to do with designing the Densmore.
A Condensed History (1923): "It is understood to have chiefly been the invention of Walter J. Barron, a relative of James Densmore."
Adler (1973: Amos and Emmett Densmore, Barron and Wagner. Emmett Densmore only put up the money, he didn't design any typewriters.
Beeching (1974): "...[Wagner] collaborated with [James] Densmore to produce in 1891 a machine with bore Densmore's name." Wrong. It wasn't James Densmore, but that seems to be a widely accepted assumption.
Lippman (1992): Amos and Emmett Densmore, Barron and Wagner.
Rehr (1997): Amos, Emmett and James Densmore. No mention of Barron or Wagner.
Adler (1997): Repeats the same mistake as in his first book.
Russo (2002): Barron.
My vote for accuracy goes to Thomas A.Russo.