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Saturday, 6 August 2011

On This Day in Typewriter History (LXXVII)

The Unheralded Inventor of the
Keystone and Postal typewriters
William Prehn Quentell gets a passing mention in most typewriter historians, as the “co-inventor” of the Postal typewriter with Franklin Judge. Quite how Judge got in on the picture I cannot say, but it turns out Quentell designed the Postal on his own, and worked toward its eventual production over a period of about 13 years.
In the meantime, as it also now transpires, Quentell first designed the Keystone typewriter. Armed with this knowledge, it is easy to make out the connections between the Keystone and the Postal.
(The Postal, by the way, is said to got its name because Quentell “wanted to suggest the machine was a good device for writing letters and postcards from home”.)
It’s pretty obvious that with the Postal, Quentell took his lead from the Blickensderfers – although it is also evident the Postal grew out of Quentell’s earlier designs, for the Keystone. Quentell did indeed work in Stamford, Connecticut, after the Postal company closed in 1908. It would have put him in close proximity to the Blickensderfer operation, but too late to have any impact on his Postal design.
What is very noticeable is that the oak cases used for some of the Hammonds and Blicks, and for the Keystone and the Postal, are almost identical, if not actually identical down to the last detail.
But it seems Quentell was unabashed in taking existing typewriters and adapting the ideas of others for his own use. For example, most historians draw comparisons between the Keystone and the Hammond, with the use of a typeshuttle (strictly speaking, a “swinging-sector” on the Keystone) and a hammer.
As well, Quentell worked on two other designs, both of which in many regards reminds one of the Franklin and the Imperial with their semi-circular keyboard and space bar arrangements. Unfortunately, I can’t pin down whether these other two Quentell designs ever went into production. But they would have been a neat little typewriters if they ever did get made.
From the early part of the 20th century, right up to the late 1920s (when he returned to typewriters), Quentell devoted most of his designing attentions to calculator, adding and “computer” machines. In fact, he worked for a while with the award-winning Frederick Arthur Hart at Underwood (see earlier post on the Underwood combined typewriting-calculating machine at
But getting back to the Keystone and Postal: Perhaps many typewriter inventors did blatantly follow the examples of others. Apart from the Keystone and the Postal, it has been noted (by Paul Lippman in American Typewriters in particular) the similarities between these machines and the like of the Eagle, Charles John Paulson’s Sterling, Richard William Uhlig’s Commercial Visible (a sort of cross between a Daugherty and a Blick or Postal), William Allen McCool’s eponymous typewriter and yet another from Byron Alden Brooks (the Travis).
Not too many years separated the production of these machines, many were built in the same places and/or by the same companies (for example Keystone), and most didn’t survive too long in the market place. The demand for new and (even if only slightly) different typewriters must have been great. Or at least the situation must have been perceived that way by not just designers, but by people willing to invest in new typewriters. Many fingers were burned in the process.
Given this environment, a sensible typewriter designer might have “kept his day job”. One such was William Prehn Quentell, who was at one time a high-powered stockbroker on Wall Street (at a time when a seat on the New York Stock Exchange cost $66,000!) and for whom typewriter designing was during that period a sideline. He worked for Atwood, Violett and Company between 1901-1903, and also later on the cotton exchange for a number of years. Nonetheless, Quentell still needed backers to get his machines made. That is, until eventually he was able to establish the Quentell Corporation in the early 1920s.
But Quentell was a patient and persistent man. Even after patents were issued for the Keystone and Postal, changes were designed and made when the machines actually went into production.
This last point might go some way toward explaining why Quentell has not, in various typewriter histories over the years, been given the full credit for his designs. The neglect is reflected in A Condensed History of the Writing Machine (1923), which appears to be the first to make the mistake of linking Franklin Judge’s name with Quentell’s as a co-designer of the Postal. The claim has simply been repeated, unchecked, ever since.
Quentell did work with Judge, but on calculating machines, one of which was jointly designed but which Judge assigned to Quentell. Quentell moved about an awful lot, too (including to Greenfield, Massachusetts, from Stamford, and later to Montclair). For a time from 1904 he was based in Norwalk, Connecticut, while the Postal was being made there.
It should be noted that after journalist Bennett Chapple visited the Postal factory in Norwalk in 1904, his article in National magazine made no mention whatsoever of Judge. As this excerpt from Paul Robert’s The Typewriter Sketchbook (2007) shows, it was Quentell who Chapple said was responsible for “succeeding in placing this machine favourably before the American public”.
Judge’s home town was Norwalk, where the Postal company, founded in New York in 1902, moved in 1904. An article in The Stamford Advocate in 2006 compounded the misconception about Judge’s role in the invention of the machine. The story appeared after Judge’s “personal Postal, a Model 5, was donated by family members to the Norwalk Museum … after spending about 90 years in Judge's attic.” It said the company was formed by Judge, “with William Quentell, then of New York City. Quentell's role in the company was likely financial”. No mention of the fact Quentell actually designed and patented the typewriter! Among many others …
Here is a rundown of at least 33 of Quentell’s patents, stretching over more than 40 years (the last was granted in 1931, the year before he died):
1890: Typewriter
1892: Can soldering machine (2)
1893: Lamp extinguisher
1895: Font (see below)
1896: Typewriter
1898: Typewriter
1899: Typewriter
1900: Typewriter
1902: Typewriter
1904: Adding machine
1905: Hand cotton picker
1906: Cotton harvester
1907: Typesetting machine
1908: Calculating and adding machine
      Calculating machine
      Printing press (2)
1909: Calculating machine
1910: Calculating machine (with Franklin Judge)
      Calculating machine (solo)
1911: Calculating machine
1912: Calculating machine (with Franklin Judge)
1917: Calculating machine (with Hart for Underwood)
1918: Adding machine
1919: Adding machine
      Proving sheet (checking slip)
1924: Print mechanism
      Transfer mechanism for registers
1929: Typewriter (2)
Clearing the air about Judge need not be interpreted as suggesting Quentell did not get outside assistance with some of his typewriter designs. He did. One patent, featuring a machine with two small abutting spare keys, was assigned to Quentell in 1895 by De Kerniea James Thomas Hiett, an inveterate calculator designer of St Louis.
Quentell’s first typewriter design was assigned to him on this day in 1890, when he was living in Kansas City. It was for a Hammond lookalike machine with a circular keyboard with a round “segmental disk”.
Quentell’s first patent for what would become the Keystone was issued on March 24, 1896. This clearly shows the hammer coming from behind the carriage, among other features.
In 1898 Quentell went in another direction, patenting a machine which reverted to the circular keyboard from his 1890 design, but with a three-line typeshuttle similar to the Hammond’s. It had a Franklin-like arrangement, with shift bars either side of a small space bar.
On May 9, 1899, Quentell was issued with the patent for the Keystone.
In the following months he also patented the Keystone’s peculiar typebar and the mechanism for changing the type segment and keeping it properly aligned, assigning both to the Keystone Typewriter Company.
When Quentell was finally able to get the financing together to manufacture his Keystone typewriter, a company was formed in New York in 1898 and Quentell moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1899 to oversee production.
The big mistake Quentell made with his first typewriter venture was to aim for a cut-price $35 cost, perhaps to undercut the Hammond, by having the carriage made of pig iron (pot metal or white metal). This deteriorated or broke with use and over time.
Quentell’s first patent for the Postal was issued in 1902. With this the influence clearly shifts from Hammond to Blickensderfer. The major change was adopting a typewheel.
With the Postal, and Quentell achieved an even lower market price of $25. The Postal, like the Blicks, used an interchangeable hard-rubber typewheel and a three-bank keyboard with double shift. Unlike the Blicks (or most of them, anyway), it used a ribbon rather than an ink roller and the QWERTY keyboard. Its fundamental mechanism was also different.
This was a particular Quentell speciality: When a key is depressed, it slightly raises one of the long, thin shafts, or index pins, that can be seen behind and above the keyboard. The typewheel rotates until an arm connected to it hits the raised index pin, then the typewheel proceeds to the printing point. This mechanism is similar in principle to that of the Hammond.
The advertising line was "the only low-priced typewriter combining universal keyboard, powerful manifolding and mimeograph stencil cutting." As Richard Polt wrote, “With features such as these, the Postal enjoyed some popularity; the company employed 2000 salesmen in the US, and the typewriter was exported to Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, and even Russia."
A much improved No 7 model, costing $50, was introduced in 1908, was sadly did not win market favour.
Quentell returned to typewriter designing in 1929, when he was living in Washington DC. His idea was for a small, conventional but noiseless portable powered by electricity.
William Prehn Quentell was born in New Orleans on January 8, 1861, the son of Reinhard Conrad Wilhelm Quentell (born Bremen, Germany, 1823) and his wife, Marie Therese Corina Baquie Quentell.
He died at Mineral Springs, Moore County, North Carolina, on January 23, 1932, two weeks after his 71st birthday. He was buried in New Orleans.

Many of the images of Keystones and Postals seen here come from the collections of Anthony Casillo, Paul Robert and Richard Polt and the Costa collection.

On this day in 1890, Samuel Collins, an Englishman living in Philadelphia, patented an “improved” keyboard layout, using a Caligraph as an example.

American novelist and poet Conrad Potter Aiken, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, on this day in 1889, had some interesting views on using a typewriter. Aiken went to Harvard, where he edited the Advocate with T. S. Eliot. They became lifelong friends.
In a letter Eliot wrote to Aiken in 1916, Eliot said, “Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon. Short, staccato, like modern French prose. The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.”
Aiken (above) mentioned this exchange in an interview with Robert Hunter Wilbur for the Paris Review Winter-Spring edition of 1968 (No 42):
INTERVIEWER: To turn to your own work — and the prototypical Paris Review question: How do you write? You’ve told me before that you compose on the typewriter.
AIKEN: Yes, ever since the early 20s. I began by doing book reviews on the typewriter and then went over to short stories on the machine, meanwhile sticking to pencil for poetry.
INTERVIEWER: So your verse symphonies were all written in longhand?
AIKEN: They were all written in little exercise books, with pencil.
INTERVIEWER: When did you start writing poetry on the typewriter?
AIKEN: About the middle of the 20s, I think. It was largely in the interests of legibility because my handwriting was extremely small and not very distinct, and the pencil faded. And so this was a great advantage and saved me the pains of copying because in many instances the short stories in Bring! Bring! were sent out exactly as written. They were composed straight off my head. I didn’t change anything. It’s a great labor saving device — with some risks, because if you lost a copy in the mails it was gone!
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t make carbons?
AIKEN: I never used a carbon because that made me self-conscious. I can remember discussing the effect of the typewriter on our work with Tom Eliot because he was moving to the typewriter about the same time I was. And I remember our agreeing that it made for a slight change of style in the prose — that you tended to use more periodic sentences, a little shorter, and a rather choppier style — and that one must be careful about that. Because, you see, you couldn’t look ahead quite far enough, for you were always thinking about putting your fingers on the bloody keys. But that was a passing phase only. We both soon discovered that we were just as free to let the style throw itself into the air as we had been writing manually.
INTERVIEWER: Did writing on the typewriter have any comparable effect on the style of the poetry?
AIKEN: I think it went along with my tendency to compress the poetry that began about the mid-20s, ’23 or ’24, thereabouts. But revision was always done manually. I preferred yellow paper because it’s not so responsible looking, and I would just let fly and then put the thing away after it was written and not look at it until the next day. Then go to work on it with a pencil — chop and change and then copy that off again on the yellow paper — and this would go on for days sometimes. There are some instances, especially in later work, when there have been something like 20 versions of a poem.
Aiken died in Savannah on August 17, 1973, aged 84.


Richard P said...

Great research on Quentell. I love his designs, both realized and unrealized. And I love this whole family of typewriters that use interchangeable type elements.

Robert Messenger said...

Thanks, Richard, it's good to give someone like Quentell his due credit. Given your love of interchangeable type elements, you would have been in your element with the range in the Selectric post!

Katherine Greenough said...

Thanks so much for helping me with genealogy research! You helped me over a total dead end with the Quentell family, who are my ancestors by marriage. William P. Quentell's daughter Marie Olga married Atwood Violett (1848 -1933), and Atwood's sister, Mignonette, was my great-great grandmother. Again, many thanks.
Kathy Greenough, Boston