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Sunday 3 July 2011

On This Day in Typewriter History (XLIII)

And his Monster Typewriter
Prowling through the basement of the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1996, Darryl Rehr, typewriter historian, collector, author and former editor of ETCetera, came face-to-face with “an obscure and strange machine with a massive honeycomb keyboard and a nearly undocumented history”.
It was the Eckels, and it had been designed by George Morris Eckels of Chicago in 1890.
That is was “obscure”, as Rehr said, may have had a lot to do with the fact that, as he pointed out in an article called “The Eccentric Eckels” in the December 1998 edition of ETCetera (No 45), the catalogue of the Milwaukee museum’s Carl P. Dietz collection had labelled this “mysterious” machine as the “Eccles – inventor and manufacturer unknown”.
Rehr added that Ernst Martin’s 1949 Die Schreibmaschine had also listed it as an “Eccles”, giving a production date of 1925.
Rehr set out to set the record straight. He acknowledged that Michael Adler had mentioned the Eckels in both of his histories, in 1973 and in 1997.
Rehr’s colour and black and white photographs of the Eckels illustrated his article and the honeycomb keyboard was the main cover image that issue of ETCetera, under the heading “Syllable Typewriters”. These images are reproduced here.
In The Writing Machine, Adler had called the Eckels a “complex typewheel syllable machine” and said its origins were shrouded in confusion. He later added, in Antique Typewriters, that it had more than 80 keys.
Having further studied the patents drawings and specifications himself, Rehr wrote in ETCetera:
It was on this day in 1894 that Eckels applied for the second series of patents relating to his typewriter (they were issued on August 13, 1895).
In the specifications, Eckels wrote that his design related to typewriter “wherein a series of letters may be struck simultaneously to form a word or syllable of a word by a single movement of the operator's hand, and it has for its object to provide an improved groupment of the keys, whereby a greater number of combinations of letters used in ordinary writing may be arranged in consecutive order in the rows across the keyboard.”
He also sought “greater accuracy in the printing” and to simplify and cheapen the cost of production.
Here are some of the earlier, 1892 designs:
And a 1897 patent for the ribbon mechanism:
As if, as Adler said, there wasn’t enough confusion about the Eckels, the typewriter historian should be warned that there were two men called George Morris Eckels involved in American affairs in this late 19th century period. The other George Morris Eckels was a doctor from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who was also born in April, but six years earlier than the typewriter inventing George Morris Eckels. This George Morris Eckels was elected a transcribing clerk in the House of Representatives in 1883 and was later a representative in the State Legislature.
The typewriter inventing George Morris Eckels was born in Hyde Park in the South Side of Chicago on April 3, 1863. He was educated at Columbia University and worked in Chicago as a corporate attorney. Apart from his interest in typewriters, George M. Eckels was a student of English history and built a major collection of more than 500 books, pamphlets and engravings on Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War. Cromwell was the 17th century British military and political leader who overthrew the monarchy and temporarily turned England into a republican Commonwealth. He ruled England, Scotland Ireland.
Eckels died in 1913, aged 50, and three years later his widow, Edith Oberly Eckels, donated the material related to Cromwell to the University of as the “George Morris Eckels Collection of Cromwelliana”.
On this day in 1900, the first Zeppelin flight took place on Lake Constance near Friedrichshafen, Germany.
In August 1929, British journalist Gracie Letheridge, or Lady Grace Hay Drummond-Hay, as she was by then, boarded a Graf Zeppelin with her Remington portable typewriter and became the first woman to travel around the world by air.
She wrote articles about the flight for mainstream American newspapers.
Last year, a documentary film was made about Letheridge’s adventure, called Farewell! Footage including Letheridge typing on her Remington can be seen in a YouTube teaser at
On this day in 1962, the first Wal-Mart store opened for business in Rogers, Arkansas. Wal-Mart has sold many typewriters in almost 40 years, but happily for unwary typewriter buyers, it is at present out of stock of mail order Chinese-made Olivetti MS 25 Premier Plus portables.
But just four years ago, a typewriter was a traffic-stopper outside a Wal-Mart store in Midvale, Salt Lake City. Concealed in a black case, the inadvertently abandoned typewriter led to the rush-hour closure of Union Park Avenue and the evacuation of dozens of Wal-Mart shoppers, when a passerby deemed the package suspicious and called police.
Authorities emptied the street from Fort Union Boulevard to South Union Avenue and deployed a robot to inspect the mysterious package, which looked much like a large briefcase.
The robot blasted the case open, launching what the press described as a ”relic” upside down on to the sidewalk.
“What is it?” asked a bomb squad member, zooming in on the device. “Is it a projector?”
Midvale Fire Chief Stephen Higgs chuckled. He still remembered using the machines.
“No, it’s an old typewriter,” he said.
After its experience with the bomb squad, however, Higgs said the typewriter was “pretty much history”.
On this day in 1877, German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter Hermann Hesse was born in Calw, W├╝rttemberg, Germany. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best-known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi), each of which explores an individual's search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.
Hesse died, aged 85, in Montagnola, Switzerland, on August 9, 1962.
There is a short YouTube video about Hesse’s Swiss home and his typewriter at
This was shot, as were these images of Hesse’s Smith Premier No 4, at the Hesse Museum, Montagnola, Ticino, Switzerland.
This photo of Hesse’s typewriter appears in Patti Smith's book Land 250.


Richard P said...

Cool things all!

The Eckels is a dream typewriter ... or a nightmare.

Supposedly Hesse was using that Smith Premier as late as 1942.

Robert Messenger said...

Thanks, Richard. Are you just back from the type-in? Hope it well. I saw the typecast - nice letterhead! All your own work?

notagain said...

The Eckels represents the kind of conceptual thinking that really appeals to me.