Now for something we ALL use, some of us almost every day.
It was on this day in 1888 that John Thomas Underwood was issued with a patent for multi-coloured typewriter ribbon, which had been developed by a Jersey City-based Englishman, William Osborne Brookes.
Brookes and Underwood had jointly applied for the patent in late 1885, but Brookes had died before the documents were issued and Underwood directed the patent to Brookes’s widow, the executrix of his estate, Edith Brookes.
The specifications for the patent read, “The object of our invention is, first, to enable an operator on a typewriter … to produce letters, figures … of different colours on the same line or on different lines or portions of the same page, sheet, or portion of material without necessitating the removal of the ribbon … used to produce one colour and the substitution of another colour …”
JOHN THOMAS UNDERWOOD:
HIS LIFE AND TIMESWe know little about Brookes, but Underwood was one of the major players in late 19th century typewriter history.
It was he who in 1895 bought Franz Xaver Wagner’s 1893 patents for the “visible” typewriter and who established the Underwood Typewriter Manufacturing Company, initially to market the Wagner typewriter.
Underwood was president first of Wagner when it was incorporated on March 30, 1895, then of the Underwood Typewriter Manufacturing Company when it was incorporated on June 6, 1898. This became the Underwood Typewriter Company on January 29, 1903, when Wagner and Underwood merged.
In turn, the company was amalgamated as Underwood Elliott Fisher in 1927, with Underwood chairman of the board.
John T. Underwood retired in 1928, after 33 years of direct involvement in the typewriter business, but continued as a director of Underwood Elliott Fisher until his death on July 2, 1937, aged 80.
Underwood continued making its own typewriters until 1959, when Olivetti bought a controlling interest.
John Thomas Underwood came from a family steeped in writing and printing tradition. His grandfather, Thomas Underwood (above), and great-uncle, George Underwood, were publishers of medical and other books in a business based on Fleet Street in London, famous for its newspaper traditions. Thomas Underwood married Mary Waugh, the daughter of Alexander Waugh (1754–1827), a minister in the Secession Church of Scotland who helped found the London Missionary Society and was one of the leading Nonconformist preachers of his day. The famous English writers Evelyn, Auberon and Alex Waugh are all direct descendants.
John Thomas Underwood was born the son of John and Elizabeth Grant Maire Underwood in London on April 12, 1857.
Underwood’s father, also John Underwood (1827-1881, above), came from Colchester, outside London. He was a chemical engineer who had been a pupil of Michael Faraday (1791–1867, below), the famous English chemist and physicist. John Underwood senior was reputed to be a “well-known chemist and inventor, specialising in printing and writing inks which attained a worldwide reputation”.
He had developed a non-smear ink among other printing inks, and chemical safety paper, and was awarded a medal and high commendation by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, of the Royal Society of Arts.
He carried on a lively rivalry through correspondence with Justus von Liebig (1803-1873, below), the German chemist regarded as one of the greatest chemistry teachers of all time. Liebig is known as the “father of the fertiliser industry” for his discovery of nitrogen as an essential plant nutrient, and developed a manufacturing process for beef extracts. He trademarked the Oxo brand beef bouillon cube.
Things turned soar for John Underwood in 1865 when his wife, Elizabeth Underwood, a baby daughter, Mary Eastern Underwood, and his mother, Mary, all died (John Thomas was eight at the time). In 1866, a dishonest business partner sent John Underwood bankrupt. In March 1872, leaving the 15-year-old John Thomas behind, the family emigrated to the US: John and his new wife, an older daughter, Hannah Elizabeth, two younger sons, Frederick Wills and Horace Grant, and a younger daughter, Helen Mary. In 1869, after their father remarried, Horace and Frederick had been sent to a boys’ boarding school in Boulogne Sur Mer, France, but they were recalled to join the rest of the family in the US.
John Thomas joined them in New Durham, New Jersey, in 1873. After a year working for $5 a week in an iron foundry, John T. Underwood joined his father’s business, John Underwood and Company, which was founded in 1874 to produce writing ink from a factory in a barn in New Durham. This company later added carbon paper and typewriter ribbon to its products.
John Underwood senior died in 1881 and the following year the family moved to 99th Avenue, Brooklyn. John T. Underwood, still just 24, assumed the running of the company with his brother, Frederick Wills Underwood.
They rented a building, then John T built the company’s own laboratory-factory on Grand Avenue, Brooklyn. In 1886 he registered a design for an ink bottle. A major setback occurred in 1891, however, when Frederick died, aged 33.
By 1890, the company still referred to itself as “John Underwood and Co, Practical and Manufacturing Chemists” and promoted writing and copying inks, typewriter and caligraph ribbons, fine linen papers and carbon papers. It held a patent on copyable printing inks. Its laboratory was at 143-149 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn. Its main headquarters were at 30 Vesey Street, New York, and it had branch offices in Chicago and Toronto.
Although no exact dates appear to be recorded, it seems that John T. Underwood went looking for a typewriter design when his long-standing business arrangement to supply Remington with ribbons and carbon paper was cancelled.
The story goes that Remington told Underwood it would henceforth resume making its own ribbons and carbon paper, and Underwood retaliated by deciding to make his own typewriter.
Bad, bad move by Remington, as things turned out, because Underwood found Franz Xaver Wagner (below) and his frontstroke typewriter.
Underwood's obituary claimed, "At first the manufacturers of the 'blind writers' ... scoffed at his efforts, but shortly they paid tribute to his foresight by universally adopting his [it was actually Wagner's] idea."
It was the beginning of the end for Remington as market leader, of a dominance it had enjoyed for more than 20 years. It apparently helped Underwood’s cause in securing the Wagner design that Franz Xaver Wagner had run into financial difficulties after his investment in producing his own machine.
By 1898 Underwood was producing 200 typewriters a week. In 1901, when Underwood introduced its No 5 model, it had already achieved the ultimate in office typewriter design, and this model (along with the No 4) sold a staggering 3,885,000 units during the next 33 years of production.
The No 5 allowed Underwood to draw level with Remington as the leading typewriter maker, and in 1915, when it moved its manufacturing plant to Hartford, Connecticut, establishing the world’s largest typewriter factory, it nosed ahead of its chief rival.
It was by then producing some 500 machines a day, and had a staff of 7500.
In 1911 Underwood had built this 17-floor skyscraper at 30 Vesey Street, designed by the firm of Starrett and Van Vleck. Two years later the giant Woolworth Building went up one block away. Underwood had a second office at Vesey and Greenwich streets, where 7 World Trade Center now stands.
John Thomas Underwood also spent a large slice of the fortune he was making from typewriter sales on building a stately red brick and brownstone villa mansion at 336 Washington Avenue, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
But John Thomas Underwood was a philanthropist, too, and gave a lot of money to a cause his younger brother Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916) pursued as a Christian missionary in Korea (the family had joined the Grove Reformed Church in North Bergen in 1874).
Horace (above) founded Chosen Christian College in Seoul (now Yonsei University) with a $52,000 grant in 1915 from John Thomas, who had already donated $6000 to make Horace’s mission possible, through the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church he and his wife attended.
John T also financially supported the building of Underwood Hall and Chiwon Hall in Seoul, besides paying Horace's mission salary. The main building was named Underwood Hall after John T. Before John T died, he gifted $1 million “to support the work of Christ in Korea”.
John Thomas Underwood died after a short illness, at his summer home at Wianno, Massachusetts.
His obituary in The New York Times the next day made special note of the fact that Underwood had made typewriters in “almost every foreign language, including Chinese , Japanese, Hebrew  and Indian". As well, Underwood had cooperated with Kong Byung Woo in producing a Korean keyboard typewriter.
It also mentioned Underwood receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1926 for “relief given to the soldiers and citizens of France during the World War and afterward”. He was president of the Buckhorn Association, “organised to educate Kentucky mountaineers”. John Thomas Underwood is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
His wife, Grace E. Brainard Underwood remarried and became Mrs Barton. She died in 1968.
Between 1951-53, John T’s widow and his daughter Gladys Underwood James helped create Underwood Park in the Clinton Hill Historic District by donating to the Brooklyn borough the site of the couple’s former mansion.
The villa and greenhouse were demolished - John T’s widow lived in a brownstone at 1 Pierpont Place, Brooklyn. The park was established on May 30, 1956 and was completely renovated in 1997 under a $900,000 capital project.
And to finish off with Underwood … American journalist and TV game show panelist Dorothy Mae Kilgallen was born in