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Thursday, 15 November 2012

On This Day in Typewriter History: The Burroughs Typewriter, Not Burroughs' Typewriter

PART 175
For sale now at Branford House Antiques
It has to be one, based on the fairly obvious evidence, one of the most photogenic typewriters ever made. And for that we must thank Dwight Prentice Rowland and his design from on this day in 1932.
Certainly the Burroughs company thought it was pretty swish. "The Burroughs Typewriter is a beautiful machine," it wrote. "If you were to buy a typewriter for appearance alone, your choice would be the Burroughs.” It "creates a desirable atmosphere of modern-ness which is stimulating to employee and attractive to customer. Then too, exterior appearance is very often an index of built-in quality."
Burroughs was wrong on that last point. Yet while it was far from being a great typing typewriter (read Will Davis), it still seems to appeal to many people. Why?
Well, one hint may be that it’s on a T-shirt and advertised as the William S.Burroughs typewriter. The seller might have got away with that claim if he or she hadn’t added the word “Beatnik”. After all, it is, in one sense, the William S.Burroughs typewriter … it's just not THAT William S.Burroughs’ typewriter.
It’s also on coffee mugs, bowls and cylinders (what the … ?). But in these cases I suppose it could be said, at best, that there is an implication rather than an outright claim of association with the "Beatnik" William S.Burroughs. One might buy such an item believing it is emblazoned with the Burroughs typewriter and not that Burroughs’ typewriter.
There’s even a website at which the Burroughs typewriter is said to be a Burroughs adding machine! What have we come to when a blogger can’t tell a typewriter from an adding machine? The Adosphere?
Reminds me of when the Ziners in Melbourne decided to succeed the typewriter with the photocopier as a machine to lionise at their festival this year. When I passed the word on to Richard Polt, he wryly remarked, “I Am Photocopier? Doesn’t have the same ring.”
But getting back to the Burroughs …
Yes, folks, there is the Burroughs typewriter and then there are the Burroughs typewriters. Believe it or not, there are people out who do think they are one and the same. One will find images of the Burroughs typewriter on the Internet alongside a claim that it is the typewriter which belonged to the American Beat Generation writer William Seward Burroughs II (1914-1997).
WSB II and Antares Parva
But WSB II had a general preference for much smaller typewriters. He was known to use a range of portables, from a Hermes Rocket to a Antares  Parva, with Facits, Remingtons and (Jack Kerouac’s) Underwoods in between. As Richard Polt has pointed out at Writers and Their Typewriters on his The Classic Typewriter Page, Burroughs – like Tennessee Williams and Brendan Behan – was more in the habit of pawning typewriters than owning them.
WSB II and Hermes Rocket
Admittedly Burroughs was also once photographed in the presence of Joe Strummer and an Olympia SG1. But to the best of my knowledge, Burroughs never used a Burroughs.
I guess WSB II was crazy enough to put a large gold decal of his surname on the paper plate of a black standard-size typewriter, but in this instance it wasn’t the case. The Burroughs typewriter was the work of the company founded by the writer’s grand-daddy, William Seward Burroughs I (1857-1898), and I doubt if WSB II ever laid claim to having had a hand in it, even over a Naked Lunch.
The Burroughs typewriter was, in fact, the work of a large team of highly qualified and skilled mechanical engineers and a designers working for the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in Detroit in the early to mid-1930s. It was introduced at national business shows in New York and Chicago in 1931 and an electric version, with just the carriage electrified, was added to the line the next year. With each version, as the back of the machine indicates, these patents were still pending.
The designer and team leader was Dwight Prentice Rowland (born Boston, November 22, 1865) and the engineers were Joseph Archerdale Summerlee (born Littleport, England, April 3, 1886); Conrad Cecil Dahl (born Birmingham, Michigan, January 11, 1900); Raymond George Bower (born Bement, Illinois, September 2, 1895); Lyman Granger Saunders (born Detroit, March 1891); Robert Thomas Brockman (born Union, Indiana, December 14, 1864) and the famous, prolific inventor Walter John Pasinski (born Poland, January 1885). There were 12 patents associated with this machine, most the work of Rowland and Dahl.
Rowland and Summerlee
On this day (November 14) in 1932, Rowland and Summerlee applied for a patent for the frame and its unusual method of construction. The carriage was later electrified, by Bower and Pasinski in particular.
Rowland and Dahl
Various typewriter historians have likened parts of the Burroughs design to other contemporary machines, and to earlier Underwood, Remington and Fox standards, as well as Jesse Alexander’s Perfect typewriter (see my earlier post on Alexander).
One of the Davis Burroughs
Will Davis had a thorough if fairly disparaging look at the Burroughs in the December 2006 issue of ETCetera (No 76). Will had had one of his Burroughs typewriters overhauled and noted the machine appeared to be “heavily over-designed”. When one looks at the size of the Burroughs team contributing to its make-up, that seems little wonder.
Rowland and Summerlee, on this day, 1932
But the Burroughs, inspired by predecessors as it may have been, is an original work, it is unique. The company itself said, “[Our] Engineers were given a free hand in designing the Burroughs.  They had no designs to change - no tools to scrap.  They selected only the best features known to typewriter construction.  The result is a typewriter of traditional Burroughs quality, combining advantages never before found in one machine.
“Not only is the Burroughs advanced in design and appearance, but it is constructed throughout of the finest materials.  Parts frequently manipulated by the operator are plated with chromium, adding to beauty and durability.  Rust-proof cadmium plating is used on unexposed parts.  Provisions for adjustments have been built in at important bearing points, a fine example of engineering forethought, eliminating the need for premature repairs, and extending the life of the machine.
                        Branford House Antiques
“Its distinctive silenced construction [was] developed by Burroughs. This quietness of operation has been achieved by Burroughs without sacrificing light, easy key action or the sturdiness and durability of standard construction.
The Burroughs Standard Typewriter is the product of half a century's experience in building office machines requiring the greatest precision of manufacture.  Burroughs is the world's largest and oldest manufacturer of adding, bookkeeping, calculating and billing machines.  The Burroughs factory is therefore equipped, and Burroughs workmen are trained, for precision work.  Precision of manufacture insures smoothness of operation, freedom from mechanical troubles, and long life.”
Burroughs believed the machine’s appearance was in itself a selling point.
“Enclosed on all sides, finished in combination black crystal and enamel, with many parts chromium plated, it speaks quietly but eloquently of fine workmanship, advanced design.” 
The carriage (and its later electrification) was the work of Bower, who also came up with a new, scientifically tested keyboard configuration - one which had a lot going for it, but came far too late to supplant QWERTY.
Burroughs said of the typewriter carriage, “[It] must stand more abuse than any other part of the machine.  The Burroughs carriage is as efficient as 50 years' experience in building heavy-duty machine carriages can make it.  It is strongly built, and so perfectly balanced on its ball-bearing rollers that its movement is remarkably smooth.  And the Burroughs correspondence-size carriage accommodates sheets up to 11 inches wide and provides a 10-inch writing line.  This unusual capacity is convenient for addressing large envelopes or writing on wide paper or forms.
“One of the distinctive features of the Burroughs carriage is the Variable Line Spacer.  This device, which permits accurate, positive fractional spacing of lines, is exactly the same unit that is used on the finest Burroughs accounting machines.”
The Burroughs company’s glowing description of its typewriter is contained in web pages from Will Davis here  and here


Scott Kernaghan said...


While William S Burroughs usually pawned his friend's typewriters in his earlier years, my understanding is that William's apartment still remains largely intact. And in it - is a Burroughs typewriter.

Robert Messenger said...

Hi Scott. Just had a look. It's a 'plant', surely? Has to be. Glad to see he used Kiwi boot polish, though.

Scott Kernaghan said...

Ha ha ha... I agree. That said, it wouldn't have surprised me that he would have had one at some stage - as he was prone to a bit of bold egotism.

Perhaps prior to his death he may have had one. The likeliness of him keeping such a machine around (not even a portable? really?) does seem highly unlikely.

Might have to get a confirmation on it from whoever is preserving his apartment.