MUSIC WRITING TYPEWRITERSOn this day in 1891, one of the first, if not the first, attempts to adapt a normal keyboard, typebar typewriter to write sheet music was contained in a US patent issued to John Henry Green of Indianapolis.
The great Charles Spiro had, five years earlier, patented a version of his Columbia typewheel machine to write music notes.
But Green’s design appears to be the first of many during the ensuing 16 years to adapt a keyboard, typebar machine for this purpose.
Of course, there is a long history of machines designed to write music, dating back to Creed in the 18th century, and these are more than adequately covered in Michael Adler’s two typewriter history books. Some of these were almost combined piano-typewriters.
But here we are looking at typewriters as we know them.
Green was followed in 1893 by the first of three Franks from Massachusetts: Frank H. Bowen from Springfield. Others were Frank H. Beals and Frank C. Winn, both of Worchester, both in 1900.
Between 1903-1907, Isaac F.Badeau and his brother Louis C.Badeau, first of Schenectady and later of Mahopac, New York, patented three designs for the purpose. Adler records that none of the Badeau designs ever went into production.
Green described his design (above) thus:
“My invention relates to the construction of devices for writing music with a machine; and it consists in mechanism which may be attached to an ordinary typewriter for such purpose.
“The main features of the typewriter are unchanged, the actuating and lever mechanism being substantially the same. The keys, however, instead of representing alphabetical characters, are marked with the various characters used in music — such as whole, half, quarter, eighth, 16th, 32nd and 64th notes — in the various positions in which they occur, and other musical characters, which will be readily recognized by a musician, on the keyboard.
“For convenience sake, I place below the musical character in smaller size the letter or other character usually represented by that key upon the typewriter selected, and this is done so that in setting up the machine the operator may know at once the place in which each key belongs, and this is true whatever kind of key be used, whether the elastic thimble or cap or the ordinary screw-key.
“The cap or thimble shown in is made of rubber and is intended to be placed over the ordinary keyhead of the typewriter, the musical character being indicated on the top in the usual manner, and the key shown has its shank threaded, so that it will screw readily into a socket formed in the machine.
“The ordinary type, of course, are removed from the typesockets of the levers, and the musical character is inserted corresponding with that upon the keyhead, or in some kinds of typewriters the entire mechanism of the type and levers to which they are connected might be removed and another inserted, which would accomplish the same result in a more expeditions manner.
“In arranging the keyboard, it must be borne in mind that some of the characters have to be printed in a direction parallel with the lines of the music-paper — that is, they do not all, when imprinted, stand at right angles to such lines, as in the case of ordinary matter.
“It therefore becomes necessary in arranging the keyboard, in order to prevent the type from interfering with others, to set the levers which carry such characters — for instance, braces, slurs, rests and some others — as nearly as possible parallel with the lines upon the music-paper — that is, at the right and left sides of the circular frame in which those levers are carried.
“I have shown them thus arranged, and it may be found in practical use that it would be advisable to change the relative position of one or more of these keys from that shown; but this would not be a departure from the principle of my invention, which consists in arranging characters of this class at the sides of the lever-frame of the machine to prevent interference in operation.
“The paper-cylinder [platen] is constructed somewhat differently, the pawl-and-ratchet mechanism at the right-hand end being removed, while the revolving mechanism for spacing between the lines is located at the opposite end …”
It seems a very elaborate way of going about it, but I suppose that if the need was there, the effort would be made. Perhaps just as much an effort was required by Spiro’s design, notwithstanding the simplicity of the typewriter itself.
The Spiro machine (above), which sold for $10 in 1886, was described in Appletons' Annual Cyclopaedia 1890 as the Columbia having been adapted, “by a special device, to print in the words of a song by the use of an additional type wheel. It is 4 1/2 inches in length, 2 inches in width, and 2 1/2 inches in height, and weighs 1/2 a pound. There is a disk, a handle, and a base. The disk contains on its periphery the requisite characters ... The disks are three - one containing the notes, one for inserting accidentals, and one for signatures and barring.”
Of course, subsequent to the designs of Spiro (above) and Green, not to mention Bowen, Beals, Winn and the Badeau, there was a range of music-writing typewriter designs going right through to the 1950s, many of which actually went into production.
These are fully covered on an excellent website called The History of Music Printing: An Online Museum of Music Printing at
This website says:
“Music typewriters were developed in the 19th century, but it wasn't until the mid-1900s that they became popular. Musicians usually specialized in using these machines.
"Several different models were invented, but there were two different concepts that became standard.
“The Keaton Music Typewriter (above and below) looked very different from a regular typewriter. It had two keyboards, one which was moveable and one stationary.
“The other models were much like a regular typewriter. They employed musical symbols instead of letters. Staff paper or blank paper was slipped in the carriage and the keys struck.”
This website lists as a chronology of music writing machines to the year of Green’s design:
1868 - J. Lang patented the idea of having a machine stamp the notes with the letters in the note heads.
1885 - Columbia Music Typewriter [this is the Spiro design]
1872 - F. M. Green used rubber stamps with an inking pad to write music. Other musical symbols were completed with a pen.
1888 - Music typewriter invented by Angelo Tessaro of Padua, Italy. The machine stamped musical symbols on to a zinc plate which was then used for printing on paper. Several publishing companies used this method but found it unpractical and difficult to make corrections.
1891 - E. Ball invented a circular disk that contained rubber music stamps on one side. It was set with the music symbols facing the paper on a table. The disk was spun to the opposite side of the place where the symbols were to be printed. The disk was pressed down to ink the rubber stamps. It was then spun again to the position where the symbol was to be printed and pressed down to print. Other symbols were done by hand.
1891 - G. Royale invents a square device with guide rails on which two slides sit. Both slides move up and down, and side to side. One slide was used to draw the staff. The other slide was equipped with buttons that contained musical symbols. These were pressed onto the paper to print the music. This seems to be the precursor of the Keaton Music Typewriter.
Some notable typewriters included on this website are:
The Nocoblick (above) was designed by Ludwig Massen and was in use between 1910 and 1917. The machine was produced by Groyen and Richtmann of Cologne, Germany - the same company that distributed the Blickensderfers in Europe.
The Melotyp music typewriter (above) was invented by Carl Winterling in Frankfurt, Germany. It won the grand prize in the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris.
It is believed that only 10 of these machines were made and five were exported to the United States in 1938. Four of these machines are now in museums or other musical institutions, and only one is in private hands.
The Keaton Music Typewriter (below) was first patented in 1936 (14 keys) by Robert H. Keaton from San Francisco. Another patent was taken out in 1953 (33 keys) which included improvements to the machine. The machine types on a sheet of paper lying flat under the typing mechanism. There are several Keaton music typewriters thought to be in existence in museums and private collections. It was marketed in the 1950s and sold for around $225. The typewriter made it easier for publishers, educators, and other musicians to produce music copies in quantity. Composers, however, preferred to write the music out by hand.
In 1954, Cecil Effinger, a noted choral composer, music professor and inventor, invented a music typewriter called the Musicwriter (below)which eventually sold around the world.
Cecil Effinger was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on July 22, 1914. He studied the violin and oboe as a child, and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Colorado College, but it was music that interested him.
In 1937, he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory, in Fontainebleau, France.
During the 1930s and early 1940s he taught composition and theory at Colorado College (above) and at the Colorado School for the Blind; and in 1945, he taught composition at the American University in Biarritz, France. He was also an oboist in the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra from 1932 to 1941 and was appointed first oboe in the Denver Symphony from 1938 to 1941. He joined the military during World War II and became the director of the 506th Army band.
After the war, he became music editor for The Denver Post from 1946 to 1948. He was appointed chairman of the composition and music theory department at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. In 1981, he retired from the position but continued as composer in residence for the university until 1984.
Among other inventions, Effinger invented the Tempo Watch in 1969, which is a metronome in the form of a stopwatch. In 1974, he also invented a typewriter for use with architectural drawings and other large documents. He died in Boulder, Colorado, on December 22, 1990.
It was while in France that he had the idea for a music typewriter. Effinger said:
"One afternoon in October 1945, I was in Paris purchasing some music supplies for the Biarritz American University [when] I happened to see in a store window a drawing instrument and something about this instrument triggered in my mind an idea relating to a means of doing music copy by machine. By that evening the basic principles of the Musicwriter . . . had been firmly established."
On his return to the US, he began working on his idea of a music typewriter.
By 1946 he had created a prototype but continued to refine his invention. In 1954, he completed his invention, and in 1955 he created the Music Print Corporation, which produced and sold the Musicwriter from 1956 to 1990. During this time, more than 5000 Musicwriters were manufactured in several models.
Effinger first used R.C.Allen typewriters (above) for his design, and later Olympias (below) were used for the same adaptation.
I have one of the Allen Musicwriters in my collection, as well as one of these Corona portable typewriters, in next-to-new condition. This model was brought out in the late 1930s-early 1940s.
An Olympia Musicwriter is in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
A much lesser known adaption is this one on a Remington, which was carried out by British bandleader and composer Lily Pavey in 1963.
On this day in 1933, the American historian and author David McCullough, one of the most famous writers still using a manual typewriter, was born in Pittsburgh. He turns 78 today.
He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award. His first book was The Johnstown Flood (1968); and he has since written eight more on such topics as Harry S Truman, John Adams, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
McCullough has also narrated multiple documentaries, as well as the 2003 film Seabiscuit; and he hosted American Experience for 12 years. McCullough's two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, Truman and John Adams, have been adapted into a TV film and a mini-series, respectively.
McCullough's most recent work, The Greater Journey, about Americans in Paris from the 1830s to the 1900s, was released on May 24 this year.
Music typewriters are a great topic. Then there's the Type-A-Tune, a typewriteroid musical instrument...
I have one of those, but a couple of bars have broken off inside, and it seems impossible to fix. So I can't play a full tune. There were two listings on eBay for near-new looking red ones this year, but they went for what I thought were astronomical prices.
Great post, thank you! I was lucky to get an Olympia SG-3 based Musicwriter, it's working fine!
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