BOY GENIUS TO
AMERICAN FLYERTime to salute a toy typewriter – and a classic at that: The American Flyer.
It was on this day in 1933 that Thomas Raymond Arden applied for a patent for the design of the toy typewriter that was to win a place not only in the hearts of children across American, but in the collections of typewriter lovers around the world, grown-ups who might otherwise scorn the humble plaything.
Arden, then living in Baldwin, New York, had applied for a patent for the mechanics of the American Flyer on September 19, 1932, and it was granted on May 2, 1933.
Three months later, he had the highly distinctive outer design for the Flyer worked out, and that patent was issued on April 3, 1934. The American Flyer was ready to fly.
Arden assigned both designs to the American Flyer Manufacturing Company of Chicago.
The American Flyer Manufacturing Company also made the toy train of the same name, and perhaps even greater fame.
But in toy typewriter terms, the American Flyer could lay claim to being the first to use a sliding indicator geared to a typewheel.
Remodelled to get rid of fragile pot-metal gears, the American Flyer became a toy able to type in both upper and lower case letters. But there was no automatic advance for the ribbon - the spools had to be turned manually.
The American Flyer company history dates back to 1908. Soon after William Ogden Coleman gained control of the Edmonds-Metzel Hardware Company of Chicago, Edmonds-Metzel adopted the American Flyer brand name for toy trains. Two years later Edmonds-Metzel changed its name to the American Flyer Manufacturing Company. In 1918, Coleman died and his son, William Ogden Coleman Jnr, took over the company.
The American Flyer typewriter was part of an early 1930s recession-fighting expansion into other toys. The move did not work out.
In December, 1937, W.O. Coleman gave the struggling American Flyer company to Alfred Carlton Gilbert, a former Olympic pole vaulter, in return for a share of the profits. Gilbert moved the company to New Haven, Connecticut, and by 1941 all the “Chicago” products, including the typewriter, had been expunged from the catalogue. Gilbert died in 1961 and what remained of the original company discontinued the American Flyer train line in 1966. The brand name, however, survives.
Ray Arden was the proverbial boy genius, getting international publicity as far back as 1906, when he was just 16. The Adelaide Advertiser in far off South Australia declared in a headline on October 18, 1906, “Rival of Edison”.
We typewriter fanciers might like to think that before he died - in Danbury, Connecticut, in the early 1950s - Arden could look back with pride at the American Flyer and deem it to be the high point of his designing career. Sadly, that isn’t the case: this man was an absolute wizard with miniature mechanics and he is best remembered today not for his typewriter but for his model airplane glow plug ignition.
Thomas Raymond Arden was born in Manhattan on February 24, 1890, the son of Thomas O. Arden and his wife Susan Notaling Arden.
He was building toy car and boat models at age five and at 11 had built a rubber-powered model airplane from plans he found in a magazine.
The 1906 article in the Australian newspaper, reprinted from a New York publication, called the then 16-year-old Arden an “electrical genius who gives promise of becoming a future Edison”.
It said Arden had “already invented an electrical storage coil, several improvements on the wireless telegraph, and a means by which balloons can be kept in communication with the earth without the use of wires, now matter how high they may be”.
A 21st century nomination for Ray Arden to enter the Academy of Model Aeronautics Hall of Fame, however, puts Arden’s highest achievement at the glow plug.
For all his natural genius, Arden was an absolute dunce at his Bronx school, and that was because rather than study, he spent all his spare time building small aeroplane engines.
At 17 he began to master the glow plug, and in 1908 Arden designed and flew a model biplane with a six-foot wingspan and 12 square feet of wing area. Two years later Arden had his two-cylinder model engine down to 14 ounces. Much later it came down to two ounces.
Arden always had a fascination for making toys and in 1939 he created the valve-in-piston Mighty Atom engine. Improvements produced the Super Atom.
Ray Arden had already produced a human Mighty Atom in his daughter Alice Jean Arden (born July 23, 1914, in Philadelphia). Alice is seen here on the right, with Helen Stephens:
Alice, who grew up in Long Island and was educated at Baldwin High, competed for the US in the women's high jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (as the only New York City female team member). She married basketball player Russel ‘Rusty’ Hodge and their son Russ Hodge (below) was a decathlete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, making Arden and Hodge the only mother-son Olympians in American history. After Tokyo, Hodge set a world decathlon record on his mother's 52nd birthday.
From Popular Science, 1939