THE FAMOUS PATENT #523,698
Did FRANZ XAVER WAGNER really invent
the great Wagner-Underwood
visible writing typewriter?
Or did his son,
HERMAN LEWIS WAGNER?When US Federal Judge Alfred Conkling Coxe Senior (below) sat down in a New York court in December 1897 to try “to remove a cloud” from over the patent for the Wagner-Underwood visible writing typewriter, he failed - miserably.
Judge Coxe virtually conceded defeat himself, declaring this to be a “tangle which is unique and unprecedented”. It was, he said, a “snarl of titles”, the unravelling of which was beyond “a merely finite intellect”.
I’m here to disappoint you. My own “finite intellect” can - even given the benefit of 113 years of other typewriter historians’ intervening wisdom and research - do no better.
The cloud remains, as thick as ever. And, as the late, lamented typewriter collector and historian Donald Scott Sutherland might have said, it gets even denser with time. Don, who sadly passed away in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City, on May 24 last year, surely understated things when in 2009 he said of the Wagner-Underwood question: “It’s convoluted”.
To which fellow collector Jim Dax responded, ”It seems that reality is far different from what we are told. Much is lost with time, deaths, and the stories seem to continually change. Look for and always be aware of information that is first-hand (as close to original as possibly). Good luck and keep an open mind.”
It has long been niggling away at me that the story of how the Wagners invented their visible writing typewriter, then sold the rights to it to John Thomas Underwood, is full on inconsistencies. It’s a very “cloudy” tale, to say the least.
To start with: What exactly was the involvement in all this of Franz Xaver Wagner’s eldest son, Herman Lewis Wagner (born New York, 1870)?
Most historians do concede that Herman either greatly assisted Franz or at best jointly designed the Wagner visible writing typewriter with his father (some sources make the mistake of claiming Franz, above, and Herman were brothers).
The only Wagner patent I can find which directly relates to a visible writing typewriter is No 523,698 (above). And this expressly states that Herman was the inventor. It is assigned to Franz.
This patent was applied for on April 27, 1893, and issued on this day in 1894.
Is it possible Franz Wagner, given his earlier commitments to other typewriter companies, and assigned designs, foresaw legal and financial problems ahead for him and for his Wagner Typewriter Company (founded April 27, 1893) if the patents were in his own name? But that seems hardly likely, given the nature of the evidence that emerged in the 1897 court case.
Like all Wagner patents, the specifications for No 523,698 are particularly difficult to follow.
Nonetheless, its relevance is apparent in A Condensed History of the Writing Machine (1923), in which under the heading of Underwood it states, “The Franz X. Wagner patent of April 27, 1893, was the start, the machine going through an experimental period by the Wagner Typewriting Company. The machine was bought by John T. Underwood …”
There is only one April 27, 1893 application for a Wagner patent, and it is the one which has Herman Wagner as the inventor.
Even more relevant is that in the transcript of the 1897 court case at which Judge Coxe presided, over the ownership of the rights to this patent, it is clearly stated that the patent for the visible writing typewriter invention was issued on July 31, 1894.
Charles Vonley Oden (Evolution of the Typewriter, 1917) is not known for accuracy, yet he does write, “Mr Wagner invented a typebar mechanism and incorporated it in a machine, for which he filed application for patent, April 27, 1893, the same being granted July 31, 1894 (No 523,698). This machine later became known as the Underwood.”
Michael Adler agrees Franz Wagner (“together with his son”) invented a visible frontstroke machine … “for which he filed a patent in 1893”.
G. Tilghman Richards in The History and Development of Typewriters (1938, 1964) cites Wagner patents Nos 497,560 and 559,345. The first, from May 1893 (filed June 1892) is also actually from Herman, not Franz, and relates to alignment. It also relates to a typewell typewriter, as in the early Remingtons and Yosts, not a frontstroke. It is assigned to Franz (see below).
The second is a joint Herman-Franz patent of 1896 and relates to the typebasket.
Yet just how cloudy this whole area is was stressed in an exchange on the online Typewriters forum on Yahoo! in March 2009. Most of the writing came from Don Sutherland (below) and referred to this image:
The image appeared in The Typewriter Legend (1985) and was captioned, “An Underwood precursor: Believed to be a Wagner, a prototype of the Underwood … It seems evident Franz Wagner experimented extensively before manufacturing the machine that would become the first ‘modern’ typewriter.”
Don wrote, “the patent pertaining to this Prototype [is] dated July 31, 1894. Don't know how that correlates with the dates attributed to the Wagner typewriter as such, or the No 1 Underwood as we know it. The patent was taken out by H.L. Wagner (Herman), whose signature is on every page of drawings. The more illustrious Franz X. Wagner doesn't seem to appear in the patent, except on the first page of text which states, ‘Herman Wagner, of Brooklyn, assignor to Franz X. Wagner of New York, N.Y.’
“I would be hard-pressed to say that the Underwood typebasket evolved from this Prototype's typebasket. The two are so different that they're best considered alternate approaches to the design of a frontstrike typebasket. Ditto everything else on the machine … it now looks more like the prototype of ‘a’ Wagner typewriter - another design representing a half-hearted attempt to develop another typewriter, or, who knows, maybe by patenting this Prototype, the Wagners were able to patent features that were handy, but not necessarily required by their big-seller (say, an escapement with oscillating rack and stationary dogs). With the entire top of the machine rising for capital shift. It's hard to envision this Prototype morphing into anything that was ever manufactured.”
So if the Herman Wagner patent we are looking at today, No 523,698, didn’t go into production, where exactly did the Wagner visible writing typewriter originate? If it wasn’t with this patent, then A Condensed History of the Writing Machine, for one authority, has got it wrong, too. And that seems unlikely, even if it was published 30 years after the event.
Conventional wisdom stemming from the widely accepted Wagner-Underwood story is thrown on its head by the transcript of a court case in New York in 1897. This clearly indicates:
1. Franz Wagner DID NOT sell the rights to his machine to Underwood.
2. Instead, Wagner sold them to someone called William E. Watkins, of Upper Montclair, New Jersey, who immediately on-sold them, in part, to Underwood. Watkins, or his role in all this, is not mentioned in any typewriter histories.
3. Wagner later tried to re-sell the rights to other parties, excluding Underwood.
4. But Underwood then gave his share back to the Wagners (told you it was confusing!).
5. Watkins won the court hearing, being declared the legal rights holder, and therefore entitled to do what he liked with the Wagner patent.
6. Franz Wagner had tried to have the agreement he signed with Watkins declared forfeited and void because Watkins had held out on the $4 a machine royalties due after the first year of the Underwood typewriter’s production, 50 machines in 1895.
7. Franz Wagner claimed the visible writing typewriter was HIS invention, yet conceded in court documents the inventor was actually his son Herman.
Attempts to “uncloud” the history of the Wagner design and its ownership started in the Supreme Court of New York on March 14, 1896.
In the ensuing case involving the Wagner Typewriter Company and Watkins in the Circuit Court, Southern District New York, on December 13, 1897, it was stated that Franz Wagner had sold exclusive rights to this patent to Watkins.
An agreement had been signed on February 20, 1894, more than five months before the patents was issued. Under this, for $1 in hand, Franz Wagner gave Watkins, “his heirs, administrators and assigns, the sole and exclusive right to manufacture and sell anywhere in the world the visible writing typewriter … of which I am the inventor”.
The confusing thing here is that court documents state the patents for the visible writing typewriter had been “allowed” on January 9, 1894, but there is no trace of a Wagner patent being issued on that date. Perhaps this was an interim measure.
The rights were sold for $5000 plus $4 a machine for a minimum annual royalties payment of $2400. It was claimed Watkins had forfeited the rights through his failure to pay royalties.
But Wagner also offered Watkins the opportunity, available at any time within the ensuing year, to pay him a lump sum of $15,000 for “all patents, both United States and foreign, covering all the parts in said machine”. This included any additional patents and improvements Wagner said he had already made on the design.
The suit in equity by Wagner sought “to remove a cloud” on the patent. An injunction was also sought to restrain Watkins from using the patent or transferring rights to it. It was stated the patent was “granted on July 31, 1894, to Franz X. Wagner, as assignee of the inventor, Herman L. Wagner …”
The day after signing the agreement with Wagner, on February 21, 1894, Watkins sold a one-third interest in the patent to Underwood for $5000. Two days later, Watkins sold another one-third interest to Charles F. Lantry, a Western Union telegrapher in Washington.
The situation became really mired when, on August 10, 1894, Wagner assigned to Frank E. Hagemeyer and Charles H. Luddington Jr "the said invention embraced in said letters patent” for $5300 - "and guaranteed that the patent was unencumbered, except by the license of February 20, 1894”.
In January 1896, Hagemeyer wrote to Watkins stating that all of Wagner's interest in the patent had been transferred to him (Hagemeyer), and demanding payment of $2400 due for royalties. A month later, Hagemeyer assigned all his interest in the patent back to Wagner. Franz X. Wagner and Herman Wagner then assigned to the Wagner Typewriter Company their rights to a “certain invention designated … as a visible typewriting machine …”
At the same time, Underwood and Lantry transferred to the Wagner company their interests.
Things get only murkier. In 1896, Luddington said his rights actually belonged to Watkins and were only placed “in my name for the protection of Mr Hagemeyer pending the repayment to him of the moneys which he expended for the purchase of the Wagner patents, as is evidenced by the agreement between Mr Hagemeyer, Mr Watkins and myself”.
By the terms of the agreement, Luddington declared he held the one-half interest in the patent as trustee for Watkins, and agreed to convey the interest to Watkins when $500 had been paid to him and when Hagemeyer had been reimbursed for the moneys which he had expended.
Watkins never made or sold any typewriters, so he claimed he owed no royalties.
When Wagner initiated Supreme Court action in 1896, he had “invested large sums of money in the business, and [was] engaged in manufacturing typewriting machines under the Wagner patent”. He maintained his agreement with Watkins was forfeited and void. But Watkins denied this and said he believed he still owned the rights and was “entitled … to manufacture and sell typewriting machines embodying the invention …”
Not surprisingly, Judge Coxe called all this “a legal tangle”.
Coxe felt the way Watkins had gone about paying for the rights was immaterial to the dispute. “It is enough that the licensee paid to the licensor the full amount agreed on between them.” The issue was that Watkins was not obliged to pay for the additional patents or improvements he had been offered. “As long as this license was in force, the entire interest in the patent remained in Watkins. All that Wagner retained was the right to use any machines which he then possessed."
As to the assignment of the patent to Hagemeyer and Luddington, “Wagner retained no interest in the patent of the least value …” The effect of the conveyances was to vest the entire interest under the patent in Watkins and Hagemeyer. Wagner had no longer any interest. Watkins held an exclusive license to make and sell, and a half-interest in the invention with Hagemeyer.
Franz Wagner and Herman Wagner had no tangible interest in the license held by Watkins, and no right to manufacture and sell, but only the right to use the patented machine. The Wagner company “gets its right to manufacture and sell direct from Watkins, he having assigned a two-thirds interest in the license … to Underwood and Lantry, and they having assigned to the [Wagner company] in February, 1896.
“If, as the [Wagner company] contends, the license was forfeited by the non-payment of royalty in December, 1895, it may be pertinent to inquire how the [Wagner company] could obtain any valid rights thereunder in February, 1896.”
Coxe said “The court fully appreciates the unfortunate position in which the [Wagner company] is placed by what it terms the ‘dog-in-the-manger policy’ of [Watkins] but, after examining the case in all its aspects, the court is constrained to hold that the [Wagner company’s] title is too obscure to warrant the decree prayed for. To say the very least, the [Wagner company’s] title to all the rights under the patent is doubtful, and a forfeiture should not be declared in a doubtful case. The bill is dismissed.”
THREE BIG QUESTIONS REMAIN:1. Is #523,698 the design for the visible writing typewriter?
2. If so, did Herman Lewis Wagner, not Franz Xaver Wagner, invent the visible writing typewriter?
3. Who is William E.Watkins, why has he been overlooked in typewriter history, and how did he get involved in all this?
On this day in 1954, an Italian expedition led by Ardito Desio conquered K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth (28,251 feet) behind Mt Everest.
The two climbers who actually reached the top were Lino Lacedelli (December 4, 1925–November 20, 2009) and Achille Compagnoni (September 6, 1914–May 13, 2009). The summit was not reached again until 1977.
Although serial numbers indicate the Italian-made Everest K2 portable typewriter was first made in 1952 (the year Desio first investigated the K2 undertaking), most models date from the year of the ascent, 1954 (see Richard Polt’s above) to 1957. We'd like to believe the Everest K2 is so named in honour of this great achievement.
Above are Italian mountaineers Erich Abram, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni during the ascent of the Breithorn in January 1954.
Above is the logo from Georg Sommeregger’s K2:
American newspaper columnist and broadcaster Irv Kupcinet was born on this day in 1912, in North Lawndale, Chicago. He died in Chicago on November 10, 2003, aged 91.
Kupcinet is seen here with Hogy Carmichael in the offices of the Chicago Sun Times in March 1940.
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