Digital Clock Pioneer
Horology is, I gather, a highfalutin word for the art or science of measuring time; it covers the study of clocks, watches, clockwork, sundials, clepsydras, timers, time recorders and marine chronometers. We have in this country the Australian Antiquarian Horological Society, “an organisation for all with a serious interest in antique clock and watch collecting and restoration”.
What would be the word for an equivalent body for those with a serious interest in antique typewriter collecting and restoration, I wonder?
We’ve seen in this series that there are regular links between people who designed early typewriters and who also worked on early bicycles. A similar close association can be made between the makers of both typewriters and timepieces.
Robert Hawley Ingersoll, who we looked at in a previous post, is probably better known today for his cheap watches than his cheap typewriters or cameras. Still, his watches, which evolved into the multi-million selling Mickey Mouse watch, would hardly be considered classic examples of horology.
One typewriter inventor who does qualify as a true horological artisan, however, is Eugene L. Fitch, of Des Moines, for some time of Greater London, England, and later of New York City. It was Fitch, after all, he designed the famous Plato Clock, an early example of a digital timepiece.
Is it the Plato or is it the Fitch typewriter which gives Eugene Fitch his richly deserved place in technology history? My pitch is for the Fitch typewriter.
The "English Fitch" in Richard Polt's Collection
In the “Show and Tell” section of ETCetera No 79, the issue of September 2007, Richard Polt took a close look at his English Fitch typewriter(above). At the end of it, Richard mentioned that he’d spotted “some of [Fitch’s] other ideas, including a digital clock, a handheld pencil sharpener and a lovely typewriter cabinet ...”
We will look at some of those designs today, but start with one for a typewriter (below), the patent for which was issued to Fitch on this day in 1887. It was his second patent for the Fitch typewriter, and one that incorporated an early example of proportional typing.
But first let’s look at Fitch, about whom little has been written in the various published typewriter histories.
Eugene L.Fitch was born in New York City on August 15, 1846. As a young man he moved to Minnesota and by early 1880 was working in a dry good stores in the hamlet of Breda, Carroll County, Iowa, about 90 miles north-west of Des Moines.
It was while he was living in Breda that Fitch began to apply for patents, the first being for a thread-case in April 1880 (above). He moved to Des Moines the following year and from 1882-85 worked as a bookkeeper for I.N. Rice Company, wholesalers of tinware.
Fitch's store in among this row of buildings in 1880s BredaFitch continued to develop his thread-case, and invested in a general store back in Breda. In 1885 he was issued with a patent for a pencil sharpener (below).
By the time Fitch’s first typewriter was patented, on July 20, 1886 (below), he was working as a travelling salesman.
As Richard Polt pointed out, Fitch also designed a cabinet for his typewriter, in 1888. It had a built-in collapsible platform that allowed the typewriter to be swung down and inside the desk.
This same year Fitch established his own typewriter company, with a business address of 317 West 6th Street, Des Moines. It seems, however, that most if not all of his US typewriters were manufactured in Brooklyn, by Brady Manufacturing.
As we will see in a following post, there are a lot of close connections between Eugene Fitch and John Newton Williams and their respective typewriters, most stemming through Brady Manufacturing.
The Fitch Type-Writer Company of Des Moines, with Eugene Fitch as president, continued to operate for at least the next two years. In 1890, Fitch had James Brady (twice) and James R. Vellacott, both of Brooklyn, design improvements for his typewriter. James Brady was doubtless the owner of Brady Manufacturing.
Mike Brown in his book on John Newton Williams (The Untold Story) points out Brady also patented a number of designs relating to the Williams typewriter. Indeed, Mike suggests Williams and Fitch shared Brady modifications, which would explain the noted similarities between these machines. Another interesting aspect of Mike's research is that Lewis Cary Myers (not Meyers), later of Royal fame, worked for Brady at this time.
From Mares (1909)By 1894, Fitch was living in England, at 6 River Bank in East Molesey, Surrey, on the outskirts of Greater London.
He was issued with a patent for what was basically an all-new Fitch typewriter in England in November 1884 and applied for the same patent in the US in June 1895, while still living in England. This was granted in October 1896.
As well as the so-called “English Fitch”, Richard Polt in his ETCetera article also noted that Czech variations of the Fitch had been found in some collections.
Fitch returned to the US in 1898, first taking up residence in Astoria, Queens, New York.
From Adler (1973)There he began work on further typewriter designs, acting on behalf of the Remington-led cartel, the Union Typewriter Company.
From Adler (1997)Though his first design for Union, patented in 1902, was described as an adding machine, it was in fact for a typewriter to be also used as an adding machine.
This prototype from the Uwe Breker Collection
was featured in ETCetera No 84, December 2008But by the time this patent was issued, Fitch’s interest had already switched to clocks. In January 1901 he applied for a patent for the first development of the Plato Clock, described initially as a “time indicator”.
Eugene Fitch's Plato Clock was manufacturered between 1904-1906 by Conrad Hubert (Russian-born Akiba Horowtiz, 1856-1928) of the American Every Ready Company (of battery and flashlight fame). Nothing is known of Fitch's life beyond that point.
American crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake was born in Brooklyn on this day in 1933.
He died in Mexico, aged 75, on New Year’s Eve 2008. Donald Edwin Westlake had more than 100 novels and non-fiction books to his credit. Until his death, Westlake continued to write using Smith-Corona Silent-Super portable typewriters. He owned five models … if he needed to replace a part, he would “cannibalise” one of his other machines.
Some years ago, Otto Penzler, a long-time friend of Westlake’s, a fellow crime writer and the then owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in TriBeCa in Lower Manhattan, said Westlake “lived in fear that he wouldn't have his little portable typewriter”. Westlake said he hated sitting at his desk thinking and composing while having “something hum at me”.
Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda was born in Parral on this day in 1904. He died in Santiago on September 23, 1973, aged 69.
In 1971, Nerudsa won the Nobel Prize for literature. La Sebastiana in Valparaiso, which Neruda bought in 1959, has been set up as a Neruda Museum. It contains a Bar-Lock typewriter.