Thomas Oliver’s Iowa movements 1890-95,
and the men who backed his typewriterAs we reach our 50th part in this series, with my 210th post, there seems no better way to mark these milestones than by looking at the great typewriter inventor Thomas Oliver.
The excuse, as if one were ever needed to write about the Oliver typewriter, is that it was on this day in 1895 that Oliver was issued with a second patent for the big-eared, heavyweight olive green downstroke typewriter many of us have been fortunate enough to come to know and love.
The Oliver typewriter story was told in a book written and published this year by Jett Morton - The Oliver Typewriter Co: Machines and History (above). So it will suffice here to look at some of Oliver’s earlier typewriter patents, the men who backed him in his endeavors, and touch briefly on what we know of his life and movements in Iowa.
Thomas Oliver was born in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada, on August 1, 1852. Oddly, although we know a lot about his descendants, we seem to have no information on his ancestry. A Chicago newspaper obituary in 1909 mentioned “Scotch-Canadian parentage”.
Indeed, there are many gaps in his early life story that are yet to be filled. G.C.Mares wrote a highly romanticised version, but reading it one has to wonder how much Mares actually knew and how much of it he simply imagined.
Somewhere along the line, Oliver became a Methodist minister based in Iowa. It was probably through that line of work that he moved about Iowa quite a lot. Oliver’s first patents were for a tub washing machine in 1887, when he was based in Dyersville.
Popular theory - stemming from a 1909 obituary and the 15-year recall of “old friends” - has it that in about 1888 Oliver began to build a prototype for his first typewriter “from strips of tin cans and pieces of rubber, as a means of producing more legible sermons”.
Some of the ideas about Oliver’s early work on typewriters emerged from an article in ETCetera No 6, of February 1989, written by Darryl Rehr. Much of this is based on information written by one Chester Nelson, a former Oliver worker and “unofficial keeper of the Oliver history”, for the McHenry County Historical Society in Illinois. As you can see from this clipping, a lot of it is inaccurate.
In the next issue of ETCetera, No 7 in May 1989, Darryl Rehr was able to correct much of this, by publishing an obituary and a news report written about Oliver at the time of his death. Almost all of what has subsequently been written, and what we know about Oliver, is based on these articles.
Such obituaries based on recollections rather than actual records are notoriously unreliable. As true historians know all too well, they can often provide classic examples of how facts get distorted, and misconceptions are compounded and become entrenched as in “accepted wisdom”. Further published data on Oliver’s early typewriter work comes from an even less reliable source, the English-published Pitman's Journal of Commercial Education of 1899. It may have been from this source that, in part, Mares gathered some of his knowledge of Oliver.
A more precise means of tracing Oliver’s movements come through his trail of patents. It was by 1890, when he patented a can handle, that Oliver was based further south of Dyersville, in Monticello.
Oliver’s first typewriter patent, issued on April 7, 1891, was for a machine (below) which looked little like the Olivers now so familiar to typewriter collectors.
By the time Oliver had developed the design for his famous typewriter, he was living in State Centre, Marshall County, further west of Monticello, near Des Moines. Oliver applied for the patent for this design (below) on September 12, 1892, and it was issued on October 30, 1894.
The 1891 patent was for a typewriter with a segmental comb, hammer and roller inking. In his specifications, Oliver described his objective as “to provide a typewriter having typebars mounted on a pivoted arc, which is turned by means of differently-shaped cams carried by the key-levers and engaging a rod connected to the axis of said arc, and which typebars are struck by a hammer that is tripped at the proper moment during the descent, of the key-lever.
“A further object of the invention is to provide improved means for raising and lowering the arc to present different typefaces to the printing-surface, as well as to provide means for moving the platen-roller away from the type, as when manifolding or when writing upon thick paper.”
As a way of rewarding his backers, Oliver assigned one-third of each his first two typewriter designs, including that for the first “true Oliver” (below), to a Dubuque dental surgeon, Charles J. Peterson.
Peterson was born in Rockford County, New York, in 1854 and graduated from the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in March 1877. He settled in Dubuque, where his parents had moved in 1856. He died in 1929.
Through his practise, and his membership of Masonic orders and secret societies such as the Knights of Pythias, Peterson had become a very wealthy man. Early in the 20th century, Peterson and his wife Tenie N. Peterson could afford to build a grand Queen Anne home at 445 South Grandview, on land once owned by former Dubuque mayor George Nightingale. Here it is now:
Significantly, perhaps, Peterson was a director of the St Luke’s Methodist Episcopal Church.
Confirmation that Peterson had backed Oliver came in the Dubuque Times-Journal obituary for Oliver published on February 10, 1909, and reprinted in the May 1989 ETCetera. The obituary said Oliver had visited Peterson’s home (at 970 Main Street, Dubuque), seeking a loan, and “it was through the assistance of local parties, notably Dr C.J. Peterson, a personal friend of the inventor, that he was enabled to take out patents on the typewriter …”
In what must unquestionably relate to Oliver’s second patent, of 1894, the article says Oliver borrowed $600 from Peterson on the understanding Peterson would receive $1 in every $3 royalty for the typewriter. The obituary claims that “some time later Dr Peterson sold out his claim for several thousand dollars, and the man who bought it from him has since reaped a fortune out of it on royalties”.
This obituary also goes into detail about the backing Oliver received from Delavan Smith, an engineer and newspaper publisher.
Smith was born in Cincinnati on December 28, 1861, the son of newspaper publisher William Henry Smith and his wife Emaline Reynolds Smith. Delavan Smith was educated at Lake Forest (Illinois) Academy and Lake Forest University. He earned an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as an engineer before following his father into newspaper publishing.
The following appears in Oliver’s obituary in the Dubuque Times-Journal in 1909:
Delavan Smith (below) became vice-president of the Oliver Typewriter Company as well as of the Cox Multi-Mailer Corporation, which built bundling machines for newspaper mailings.
Smith’s main claim to fame, however, is that he owned and published the Indianapolis News from 1892 until he died at his summer house at Lake Forest on August 25, 1922. When he died, Smith left an estate worth more than $2 million.
When, on this day in 1895, Thomas Oliver received the patent for his third typewriter patent (below), the second relating to the “true Oliver”, he was living in Epworth, Iowa.
Oliver's Dubuque obituary states that it was “around 1896 that he resigned his charge at the church and moved to Epworth”. A tribute written after Oliver’s death said he was “satisfied, after years of service, that opportunities to benefit mankind were not confined to the profession in which he was engaged”.
By August 1897, Oliver was applying for further patents for typewriter designs (below), this time from Chicago, and assigning them to Frederick Augustus Eastman, of Woodstock, Illinois.
When Oliver died, he was living at 462 Winthrop Avenue, Chicago.
Oliver died suddenly after a heart attack, falling into his second wife's arms at the Argyle station of the Northwestern Elevated in Chicago on February 9, 1909.
The New York Times reported Oliver was on his way to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to test a cotton-picking machine. A Chicago newspaper’s news story on Oliver’s death said he was going there to demonstrate the machine to government officials.
The Chicago report went on, “Shortly after his mother died, [Oliver] moved to a small town in Iowa, where he invented the Oliver cotton harvester. It was placed on the market about six years ago, but was called back a year ago by Mr Oliver because he had some improvements to make on it.
“It was a machine which could do the work of 60 men in a cotton field … His cotton-picking device, in his own estimation, is the most important of all his inventions, as it was expected to solve the problem of cotton picking.”
This is interesting because the only patent taken out by a Thomas Oliver for a machine related to the cotton industry was one for improvements to machines for cotton cleaning. This Thomas Oliver was from Yazoo, Mississippi, and the patent was issued on May 18, 1858. Our Thomas Oliver was not yet six-years-old at the time. Then again, he was a genius.
In the tribute published after our Thomas Oliver’s death, there was mention that Oliver’s “invention of a panoramic device for cameras and kodaks marked an epoch in certain kinds of photography, and likewise brought him substantial returns”. For the sake of accuracy, it should be pointed out the panoramic camera was invented by James S. Stewart of Philadelphia and assigned to Oliver, among others, in 1908 (see below).
The tribute also states, “Up to the time of his death, Mr Oliver was convinced that he had discovered and perfected the principles that would make a successful rotary engine.” This much is true, for Oliver had been issued a patent for this device in 1902.
What isn’t mentioned is that even three months after his death, Oliver was still being issued with patents for typewriters: in this last case, on May 18, 1909, for a line space indicating device. Oliver had applied for it in January 1907.
In April 1909, Oliver had also been issued with a patent for a vending machine. Three months later, one final patent was issued to Oliver, but on this occasion it went to his widow, Olga Ottonia Oliver, as his executrix. It was for a trolley-pole for an electric railway car.
Where the tribute is extremely accurate is in its conclusion: “We recognize the genius displayed in his original conception and the manifest advantages accruing to mankind therefrom, as well as the ingenuity shown in subsequent development.” We might add "womankind", too.
In 1907, the Oliver Typewriter Company's headquarters had moved to the Oliver Building, now a Chicago landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
Don't know whether he has an Oliver, but he's a noted typewriter collector: movie actor, producer, writer and director Tom Hanks was born in Concord, California, on this day in 1956. He turns 55 today.
Hanks’s typewriter collection apparently stretches to more than 160 machines.
Included in it is a Corona 3 which once belonged to me.
Two years ago, Hanks was given the Corona 3 during an interview with the Australian 60 Minutes in Tokyo.
The typewriter had previously belonged to Irish-born Hollywood actor Richard Harris. The story of how it came to be in my hands, then in Hanks’s hands, is told on a much earlier post.
You can read a transcript of the Hanks interview, including on his interest in typewriters, and see the handing over of the Corona to Hanks at
Fast forward to the 6 minutes 48 seconds mark of the 14 ½ minute segment. The typewriter bit lasts about 90 minutes.