JOHN NEWTON WILLIAMS
From the sublime to the ridiculousAnd here was me thinking the Irish-born Australian inventor Louis Philip Brennan was pretty clever. But having just read Michael A. Brown’s book John Newton Williams: The Untold Story, I think Williams might have played Brennan off a break.
After all, Williams not only invented a typewriter, but several models of it went into mass production.
Brennan only ever talked about inventing a typewriter.
So here’s the scoresheet, see what you think:
World’s first guided missile
Peeping Tom picture machine
J.N.WILLIAMS (United States)
Cheque punch (see image below)
Internal combustion engine
US's first helicopter flightYes, I agree, the typewriter swings it for Williams. And what a typewriter!
Yet, at the end of the day, both Brennan and Williams died without either having secured a fortune to show for their brilliant ideas and their foresight and inventiveness over an almost identical period of more than 40 years. Few of their inventions went into serious production (Brennan’s torpedo and Williams’s typewriters being the exceptions). As the title of Mike Brown’s book indicates, Williams, like Brennan, soon became very much a forgotten genius.
Brennan’s typewriter might have been a beauty, too, judging by newspaper reports of the day. One big problem: it doesn’t appear to have ever been made.
In June 1889, Brennan (above), the man naval historians have dubbed the “Wizard of Oz”, found time away from developing his dirigible torpedo – for which the British Government had paid him an extraordinary £110,000 (or $11 million in today’s monetary terms) - to return to one of his earlier ambitions: to design and build a portable typewriter.
Brennan, who as a young man of 24, in 1876, had repaired a Sholes and Glidden imported into Melbourne, had earlier in 1889 confidently announced his intentions to the British Press. The journalist and politician Sir John Henniker Heaton wrote that “experts consider [Brennan’s portable typewriter] will create as great a stir amongst inventors as the [Brennan] torpedo”. Heaton said “the clever young Australian” had “just patented a pocket type-writer which promises great things”.
“Louis Brennan, whose torpedo has brought such honour to Australia, is now busy perfecting his new type-writer in London. There can be no doubt that if the machine fulfils the young Antipodean’s expectations, it will entirely supersede the Remington, the Hammond and the Bar-Lock, which have so far been found to be wanting in practicality.
“In the first place, the Brennan type-writer will be smaller and lighter than the Remington, and yet contain a far larger number of letters and symbols. The best Remington contains 72 symbols, whereas the Brennan will have from 80 to 120. It will also be far easier to work than any of the known machines, requiring less pressure of the fingers, and costs only £10 or so.”
These forecasts proved to be grossly exaggerated. By comparison, John Newton Williams (above) was the complete achiever.
I will not go too far into Williams’s remarkable life and inventions, since Mike Brown has more than adequately told the previously “The Untold Story”. Mike’s book is still available for purchase and can be done so by contacting him.
Our reason for mentioning Williams today is that it was on this day in 1897 that Williams was issued with one of his many typewriter patents. This one was "to simplify and perfect" his earlier designs of what William himself described as a "grasshopper" action typewriter. Williams said he wanted to render his machine "more durable and effective":
Below is the original December 16, 1890, patented design (with a non-QWERTY keyboard configuration):
The Williams has lived on to become a prized possession of typewriter collectors. Williams typewriters are so highly regarded because, for one thing, they best exemplify the push for visible writing by use of what has been termed the “grasshopper” typebar action.
From The History and Development of Typewriters, Science Museum, London (1964)Yesterday we looked at the “tasty” Fitch and today it’s a machine Richard Polt, in his inimitable style, has described as “delicious”.
Not only do the Fitch and Williams appeal to just about every typewriter collector’s tastes, but they are, as Mike Brown points out in his book, connected in many other ways – especially in that aspects of the Williams keyboard were borrowed from the Finch.
It seems Eugene Fitch and Newton Williams worked closely together at one time, notably at the Brady Manufacturing in Brooklyn. James Brady was sharing his patented modifications between both brands, and Lewis Cary Myers, later of Royal fame, was involved in building prototypes at Brady. The Williams was at first made by the Domestic Sewing Machine Company in Newark.
While the Fitch Type-Writing Company remained based in Des Moines, the Williams Typewriter Company was based in Derby, Connecticut, along the banks of the Housatonic River. In 1893 it moved its manufacturing operations there. The American typewriter was also originally made by Williams (factory below).
The typing action of the Williams can be seen at
Richard Polt on his Classic Typewriter Page explains the Williams action:“The Williams is designed to type on the top of the platen, so that one's typing is immediately visible. Thus the company called its product ‘The Rightwriter’.
"In order to achieve visible writing, Williams designed what is known as a ‘grasshopper mechanism’. The typebar rests horizontally on an ink pad. The type lever pushes the typebar up, forward and down on to the platen; then a spring makes the typebar ‘hop’ back onto the pad. When the typist gets going, it looks like a gang of grasshoppers is attacking the page.”
The action is illustrated here in Duncan James’s book Old Typewriters (1993).
Richard Polt continues, “Unfortunately, this arrangement means there isn't enough room for all the typebars in front of the platen - some of them have to rest behind it.
"This makes the Williams very pretty, but it also means that once the paper has been typed on, it has to get out of the way of the rear typebars. So it goes down under the rear typebars, into a basket, just like the basket under the front typebars which holds the paper before it's typed on.
"The result is that although the Williams is a visible writer, only a line or two is actually visible at a time. However, it must be said that that line looks very nice: since the Williams prints from an ink pad rather than through a ribbon, it produces crisp, clean work.”
The days of Williams typewriter production were numbered when, in May 1909, a Derby banker, W.S.Downs, was sent in as receiver. But this, as it turned out, was not a simple case of straight-forward bankruptcy.
Newton Williams already had his mind on other matters. On May 18, 1908 he had been involved in the first manned vertical flight in the US, when Emile Berliner (below), who created the disc record gramophone and founded the Victor Talking Machine Company, built a 36-horsepower engine and used two of them on a helicopter platform designed by Williams.
The craft reportedly lifted Williams about three feet off the ground.
Williams is seen here, on the right, with Berliner's son Henry.
This pioneering aviation enterprise also involved Alexander Graham Bell (below left) and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss (below right).
As well, Williams had his internal combustion engine, motorcycle and tri-car to work on.
John Newton Williams was born in Brooklyn on July 20, 1840, and died in Bethel, Connecticut, on February 14, 1929, aged 88.
Gee, Christopher Latham Sholes was born on Valentine’s Day (1819), Newton Williams died on Valentine Day’s 110 years later (1929), and 40 years further on, on Valentine’s Day 1969, Olivetti launched a bright red typewriter in Barcelona. From the sublime to the ridiculous!