The Sheffield ElectricPutting the word “electric” in front of “typewriter” is almost anathema to modern-day collectors. It’s definitely frowned upon. Typospherians love typewriters, and a big part of that love concerns the very fact that manual typewriters are obsolete, and are so mostly for the reason that they require good old-fashioned manual labour and some real thought to work them. This prerequisite combination of a certain mental and physical process in order to use outdated machinery is really the whole point (apart from the look, feel, sound and utter satisfaction of being in complete control of one’s own writing). Energy-saving devices such as power-driven motors are merely a means of dodging all that.
Nonetheless, vintage electric typewriters are a different matter. Collectors would unashamedly and unreservedly kill for a 1901 Blick Electric.
One of the gems (in my opinion) of my own collection is a 1957 Smith-Corona 5TE, vaunted as the world’s first electric portable (though it’s as “portable” as the nearest power point).
Putting all this aside, today I am going to look at electric typewriters. Because it was on this day in 1883 (yes, 128 years ago) that the first US patent for an electric typewriter was issued.
The design for New Yorker George Valentine Sheffield's “electric type writer” pre-dates George Canfield Blickensderfer’s successful application of electricity to a typewriter by 18 years (below).
But in Sheffield’s case, his invention was for a sort of cross between a typewriter and a linotype machine.
Sheffield is listed as joint-designer with John A.Parks, but the patent was assigned to Parks and Erastus Hayes, and as is often the case, the actual inventor is the major assignee. Little is known about any of these three, except that Sheffield came from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and was born in about 1835, the son of John and Emmeline Sheffield. He was an inveterate inventor who moved to Worchester, Boston, then Providence, Schenectady, and finally Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, where was living in 1912. Among Sheffield’s other inventions were a printing telegraph (1888) and, with Parks, a lithographic press (1880). He had had his hand a coffee roaster from as early as 1868. In 1883 he owned a sewing machine company with Christian Wuterich. Hayes was involved in other electric developments, including a fan and a motor.
The great Danish typewriter inventor, the Reverend Rasmus Hans Malling Johan Hansen (above; born Lolland, Denmark, September 5, 1835; died Copenhagen, September 27, 1890, aged 55) lays some sort of claim to inventing the first successful electric typewriter. The first models of his writing ball of 1870 (below) included an electromagnetic escapement.
Thaddeus Cahill (below; born Iowa, June 18, 1867; died New York, April 12, 1934, aged 66) was next of the scene with an electric typewriter, in 1897.
Cahill had worked as a stenographer at an Ohio court and this led to him adapting the Remington 2 to electricity. He also built the enormous and expensive Telharmonium electronic organ, producing the first electrically synthesized music.
This is what Mares had to say about the Cahill typewriter:
Michael Adler says about 40 of the Cahill machines were made.
But the Cahill and the Blick Electric enterprises had about the same lifespan, which could generously be described as no more than seven to eight years.
The German Mercedes Electra typewriter was marketed in 1921. The similar Woodstock Electrite, which had a small “outboard” motor, was introduced in 1924 and was still advertised in 1928. On both machines, only the typebars and shift keys were powered by the motor.
In 1927, electric Vari-Typers were introduced. The motor supplied the power to drive the hammer forward against the type and to advance the carriage, while the rest of the machine remained manual.
James Fields Smathers (below) of Kansas City invented what is considered the fully power-operated typewriter. Wikipedia would have you believe this was in 1914, but when Smathers applied for typewriter patents in 1913 and again in 1917, the “power” typing to which he referred was not generated by direct electricity.
It was not until 1926 that he was issued with a patent for an electric typewriter (below), which he assigned to his own Power Typewriter Company.
In 1933, the Electromatic was acquired by IBM, which launched its electric typewriter 1935. From this came a proportional spacing machine in 1941. The Franklin Institute awarded Smathers the Edward Longstreth Medal "for ingenuity in the invention of the electric typewriter".
Smathers was born on a farm near Valley Spring, Texas, on February 12, 1888. He died on August 7, 1967, in Poughkeepsie, New York.
And where does this little 1932 Swiss beauty from retired watchmaker Georges Pallaton fit in to the overall electric typewriter/index typewriter/typewheel story? Georg Sommeregger has it covered at
An Australian religious publication of August 1932 reported Pallaton, of Geneva, had also developed an electric watch, with a "fly-power" motor run off a recharegable battery
On this day in 1892, Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia. She died on March 6, 1973, aged 80, in Danby, Vermont. Buck’s novel The Good Earth was the best-selling fiction book in the US in 1931-32 and won the Pulitzer Prize. She became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”.
The typewriter (above) that Buck used to write The Good Earth (with a blue ribbon) is now in Pearl Buck House in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, a Buck museum. The Royal was purchased second-hand in Shanghai.
Graphic designer Milton Glaser was born on this day in 1929 in New York City. He turns 82 today.
Best known for the I Love New York logo, Glaser had some major deals with Olivetti, and designed some of their best known posters and advertisements.
I know of no surviving Cahills, so it must have failed worse than the Blick Electric did.
I can report from personal experience that the shift on the Woodstock Electrite is manual. So only the typebars are powered by the electric motor. It turns a shaft, as in the Smathers design, but it's a fluted metal shaft rather than a platen-like rubber roller. By the way, I did get mine working recently and will post a video on my blog when I can.
I always loved Glaser's posters.
Thanks for another great entry in your series.
Correction: Pearl S. Buck was born on June 26, 1892, not 1926.
Looks like IBM had an actual Cahill, and presented it as a gift to one of his descendants in 1976. This was recently sold on eBay:
Thank you. Minutes before your comment arrived, Richard Polt had alerted ETCA members to a fake eBay sale in relation to this. I wasn't aware of the Cahill sale before that. The Cahill will feature in December's ETCetera No 100, along with the Blick Electric.
Layout has shrunk all your pictures to bare outlines of narrow rectangles. Just thought you might want to know. Reading about Ray Bradbury typing Fahrenheit 451 on a coin operated typewriter got me looking for pictures of such a device, which led me here.
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