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Tuesday 14 June 2011

The Wonderfully Complicated World of the Simplex Typewriter

For such a small and simple machine, the Simplex typewriter has a very long and incredibly complex history. Questions remain as to its true origins.
The Simplex index typewriter itself was conceived in May 1891, 120 years ago, when Analdo Myrtle English applied for a patent, which he assigned to Philip Becker. This was for the original Simplex.
But the Simplex with which we are most familiar today had a lengthy gestation. It was born of a design by Becker and William John Thompson, which came six years later.
Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of that Simplex. It was on this day in 1897 that Becker and Thompson laid out the plans for the version of the simple little typewriter we have all come to love and admire.
To coin an Australianism, the Simplex, while a simply beautiful little typewriter, is a “bastard of a machine”. The identity of its father is very much in doubt.
Most historians have accepted that English (born Hartland, Vermont, March 2, 1849) “invented” the Simplex. But that is far from certain.
Still, while the Simplex’s real parentage is in question, there can be no doubt that three families were involved in its lineage: The Livermores, the Englishes and the Beckers. Those ties were clearly established by Jos Legrand in articles in the March and December 2008 issues of ETCetera. Benjamin Livermore, who invented the 1863 Permutation Typographer (pocket printing machine, or “Device for hand-printing”, as Livermore called it) was Analdo English’s uncle.
Quite how the Beckers got into the scheme of things is still unclear. But there were three of them involved: George, John and Philip Becker. And three things do certainly link the Livermores, the Englishes and Beckers: silversmiths and jewellery designing, clothes designing and manufacturing, and typewriter designing. English and the Beckers took out jewellery-related patents, and English assigned a plaited braid machine design to George Becker in 1890. English was still applying for patents right up to the time he died, around 1931, including for a sewing machine.
As well, there are links between the Beckers in Boston, Massachusetts, Providence, Rhode Island, and Brooklyn, New York, if not Portland, Maine as well.
As for the Thompsons, they came into the picture later: first William Thompson and then (presumably his son) Samuel Alexander Thompson. It’s interesting to discover that Samuel Thompson was still being issued with patents for improvements to the Simplex, on behalf of the Simplex Typewriter Company, as late as 1949, when it was assumed production had ended in the early 1940s.
Unlike English, the Beckers and the Thompsons remain mystery men. Were the Beckers brothers? By 1921 Philip had become executor for George in the patent for an etching machine. All we do know is that John Becker was born in Germany on May 9, 1859, and became a naturalised US citizen on June 7, 1889. He lived at Mt Ida, Newton, Boston.
There must be a question mark over whether English did indeed invent the Simplex, or whether he came in on the little machine’s development after the Beckers had started it. Jos Legrand points out that in a letter written on the Simplex to his parents, English claims to have invented the machine "within six weeks", and Jos asks whether he had been invited to New York from Boston by Philip Becker "Just to invent a typewriter?"
The answer to that question lies in how closely the Simplex is related to the World typewriters, which were designed by the Beckers (with some factory input at various stages, from designers in Boston, Portland and Providence, including Daniel Allen, Ira Salmon, Fred Main, George Toule and our old friend Philander Deming).
I may be allowing myself to read too much into this, but Jos Legrand stresses that with the Simplex the World letter arrangement was used, seemingly at the Beckers' insistence: "originally he [English] reversed [the] key order ..." Jos wrote.
Given the technical support the Beckers received for the World, and given the very large number of patents which English applied for, covering a wide range of things, the impression is left that the Beckers were the typewriter ideas men, but English (and other before him) was the nuts and bolts man. That might explain why the original Simplex design is by English, but assigned to Philip Becker. And it might also explain how the Thompsons came on board later.
It seems highly possible that the Simplex is simply a simplified, later adaption of the World. Obviously the World had opened up a sizeable market for "pocket" index typewriters, but the indications are the Beckers needed a less costly means of producing such machines, to further capitalise on that market. It also seems possible that typewriter historians failed to make a connection between John Becker in Boston and Philip Becker in New York. In A Condensed History of the Writing Machine, John Becker’s name appears as Beeker.
The first World was made by the World Typewriter Company in Maine in 1886. Production for the second model moved to the Pope Manufacturing Company’s factory in Boston. Between 1887-89, the Typewriter Improvement Company of Portland, Maine, also got in on the act (this company is placed in Boston by A Condensed History).
The Pope works were started by Albert Augustus Pope in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1878, to make Columbia High Wheeler bicycles (advertising side-by-side with the World, above). The company fits in with the World typewriter with its innovation of using stamping for the production of metal parts.
I can’t unscramble the ways in which English and the Beckers were tied up, or for that matter the Beckers and the Thompsons. But here is a timeframe for the transformation of the World into Simplex.
October 1886: John Becker’s patent for the World. Becker was then in Boston.
June 1891: George Becker, of New York, assigned a patent for an updated World to Pope.
July 1891: George Becker assigned to Pope a new, more rectangular design for the World. This is something which is much more akin to the Simplex.
August 1891: John and George Becker then assign to Pope yet another improved design for the World.
August 1892: Analdo English assigns to Philip Becker a design for the Simplex.
March 1899: Philip Becker and William Thompson are issued a patent for the Simplex. They had applied for this in June 1897, and it was renewed in January 1899.
March 1902: Thompson and Philip Becker are issued another patent for the Simplex (applied for in March 1901), this time with a “shift plate”.
January 1905: Samuel Thompson is issued with his patent. Although Samuel Thompson applied for many more patents for improvements to the Simplex over the ensuing 42 years, the machine remained essentially the same from this time until the early 1940s.
And, of course, the Simplex lives on, in spirit at least. Every time you see a cheap, plastic label maker for sale in a supermarket, think Simplex.


shordzi said...

Thanks Robert for this wonderful post! Are these all yours on the photo??
You see, your blog entries age well, just as red wine does.

shordzi said...

I just realized that on the ad for the "World Type-Writer", the address for Geo. Becker & Co. is 30 Great Jones Street, New York. It is the same address as on early (1891, 1892) ads for the Simplex Typewriter.