(Plus a 'walking' typewriter!)
on the typewriter
complexity spectrumOn this very same day in 1891, 120 years ago today, two of the most cherished machines in the typewriter collecting world were patented in the US. That mere coincidence aside, two more differing typewriters one could not wish to find.
The Maskelyne was invented by Britons John Nevil Maskelyne (below) and his son John Nevil Maskelyne Jnr, but had not been patented in Britain at the time the US patent was issued. For some reason, it was not patented in its homeland until June 1894.
G. C. Mares refers to the Maskelynes as “of Egyptian Hall fame”. Rehr says Maskelyne Snr was “a famous British magician of the era”. This is akin to referring to Lincoln as “of Gettysburg fame”, or to Bell as a “well-known telephone maker”. On the other side of the coin, the histories of illusionism, while going into great detail about the Maskelynes, rarely refer to them inventing a typewriter.
But let us start with the Odell. It was on this day in 1891 that Levi Judson Odell patented the much more familiar Odell, the No 2 with a circular base and, as Rehr writes, “a new, elaborate Art Nouveau design. The entire machine was nickel plated, although many have been seen with gold painted trim on the upper casting”. Although in general A Condensed History of the Writing Machine in 1923 paid the Odells little heed, these ornate model are very much in demand among collectors today.
Levi Odell applied for a patent for the original “dogbone” version of the Odell on May 16, 1887, and it was issued on March 5, 1889. Most typewriter histories make the mistake of claiming this first patent was issued jointly to Odell, Wisconsin iron baron John Edgar Burton and Odell’s younger (but oldest surviving) brother, Charles Henry Odell. It wasn’t. It was a Levi Odell design, and he applied for and was issued with the patent on his own.
It was, nonetheless, three-fourths assigned to Burton and the younger Odell. At the time, Levi Odell was living in Beloit, Rock County, Wisconsin, while his brother was in Rockford, Illinois, and Burton was still making his millions in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Admittedly, the Odell has always been considered a “Wisconsin typewriter”, and with some good reason.
When, on March 24, 1890, Levi Odell applied for the patent on the circular Odell, he had moved to Lake Geneva. In his application, he stated, “My invention relates to improvements in the type-writing machine for certain parts of which Letters Patent of the United States No 399,205 were granted to me March 5, 1889.”
Notwithstanding the popularity of Odell typewriters, not a lot is known about Levi Judson Odell. He was born on February 23, 1855, in Charlotte, Chautauqua, New York, the son of James Henry Odell and Mary Straight Odell. In 1870 the family, with five children aged between 17 and 10, were living in Illinois.
According to genealogists, Levi Odell married Mary Salome Mackay in 1878, aged 23, yet in the 1910 US census, he is listed as living in Chicago and as having been married to one Illinois-born Olay Odell since 1889. They had two daughters, Grace and Maud. One of the witnesses to the patent we are looking at today was Oma Odell. A widowed Oma O’Dell was living in South Pasadena in 1920.
Then there is this odd if perhaps romantic story from The New York Times of January 17, 1911:
Sounds fishy. This story places Odell in California and married to a Lulu E. Branstetter. Branstetter, born in Indian Township, Missouri, in August 1885, was back living with her parents, in Bonneville, Idaho, in 1920, aged 35, and still with her single name.
Odell’s trail of patents certainly takes us to Glendora, California, from 1910-1916, and to an Odell Manufacturing Company in Los Angeles. Levi’s father, James Henry Odell, died in Glendora in 1915, and his mother, Mary, in Glendora in 1918. Levi himself died on June 10, 1919 (leaving only one other family member, Levi's youngest brother Frank Eugene Odell, still alive at that time).
During his Californian period, Levi Odell was concentrating on the design and manufacture of safety razors.
The range of Odell razors, which included women's "vanity safety razors", were actually made in Chicago, though the company was based in LA. Odell's Decollette range (below) seems to have been taken over by Gillette by 1915.
Odell's patent trail starts with corn and other planters, in Fairbury, Illinois, from 1875 to 1885, then goes to Beloit, Wisconsin, Lake Geneva, and on to Chicago from 1902-1909. Odell patented his last typewriter while living in Chicago in 1909.
The man who first sponsored Odell’s typewriter ventures, John Edgar Burton (above), became an entrepreneur for whom gaining “$1000 a day was lame and $10,000 not uncommon”. Backing the Odell typewriter was one of the very minor undertakings in Burton's remarkable investment career.
Burton, born in New Hartford, Oneida, New York, on October 19, 1847, is most famous for his iron mining enterprises in the Gogebic and Penoklee ranges of Wisconsin.
Burton formed the Crawford Reaper and Mower Company and was general manager of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York, for Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Michigan. He retired from the insurance business in 1885 to promote his iron mining interests.
In three years “he accumulated a fortune of $2.5 million”. He organised and developed nine mines: Aurora, Iron King, Bonnie, First National Bessemer, Blue Jacket, Tontine, Valley and Anvil, employing 836 men. Burton then helped open the Aguan canal in Honduras to connect the Caribbean at Truxillo with the Aguan River, hoping to control the mahogany markets of the world.
In 1887 Burton organised the Hildalgo company for smelting silver, gold and lead ores in Sultepee, Mexico. He accumulated a private library of 10,500 volumes. “It contains nearly 200 volumes on
Abraham Lincoln, whom he regards the best man in the world's history”. Burton died in 1930 and his library and other collections were auctioned off.
One typewriter history records that the “substantial and elegant [Maskelyne] typewriter was set out to overcome the disadvantages of early typewriters. It dispensed with ribbons by using an inking pad, on which the typeslugs rest.
Most of this information actually relates to the third, 1896, Victoria Maskelyne, which was designed not by father-and-son, but by son alone.
John Nevil Maskelyne Snr is regarded as one of the greatest British magicians of all time, particularly in the field of stage illusions created through sleight of hand. He was born in Cheltenham, England, on December 22, 1839. He died, aged 77, on May 18, 1917.
Apart from differential spacing - which was not entirely successful, according to Charles Vonley Oden’s 1917 Evolution of the Typewriter (see below) - the Maskelyne had the unusual feature of a shift key that could be operated either by hand or foot. This latter device, according to A Condensed History, was an optional extra.
Mares (below)What isn’t recorded in typewriter histories is that Nevil Maskelyne, (1863-1924, below), John’s son, continued to develop the Maskelyne typewriter on his own, taking out at least two further patents on it between 1892 and 1896.
The third patent is for the Maskelyne model known as the “Victoria”, with a different typebar configuration – this is the machine on which the typeslug does its “unforgettable somersault".
Interestingly, the second patent was used as a reference by Yasuhito Harasina of Tokyo when, in 1981, 90 years after the original Maskelyne patent was issued, Harasina patented a “flying printer” in the US:
As well as his brilliant illusionism and his typewriter, John Nevil Maskelyne Snr is perhaps best remembered as the inventor of the pay toilet. It required a penny coin to open the door of his London toilets, which is the origin of the euphemism to "spend a penny".
As well, Maskelyne became involved in cinematographic invention (above and below). He was a clever mechanic and many of the illusions used in the performances were created by him and constructed in his own workshops. Ideas for a film projector designed on entirely new lines began to occupy him and his son.
They wondered if the irritating flicker produced by conventional machines of the day could be overcome by employing a continuously running film rendered optically stationary. The invention was patented on May 28, 1896, and appeared at the Egyptian Hall as the Mutagraph, featuring in a striking early film poster (above).
Maskelyne trained as a watchmaker but became interested in conjuring after watching a performance by the “American spiritualist mediums the Davenport Brothers”. When he was acclaimed for exposing a Davenport deception, Maskelyne decided to become a professional magician himself.
Maskelyne had a tenancy at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, from 1873 to 1904. He was at one time co-owner of the Egyptian Hall, then, because it was too chilly, bought the St Georges Hall. One of his major illusionary achievements was to develop levitation (American magician Harry Kellar later stole the illusion by bribing Maskelyne's technician, Paul Valadon).
Maskelyne’s son, Nevil, and a grandson, Jasper Maskelyne, also became noted magicians. As well, Nevil Jnr worked in the area of wireless telegraphy, and was a competitor (and public detractor) of Marconi in the early days of wireless. Jasper (below), while stationed in Egypt, created large-scale ruses, deceptions and camouflage during the Second World War.
Finally, as promised, the "walking typewriter". On this day in 1959, George Vincent Palmer and Harley E. Pritchett, of Los Angeles, patented an "ambulatory typewriter". Palmer, himself an architect, wanted an extremely lightweight, self-propelling typewriter that could be used by architects, structural engineers, builders, designers and contractors to "walk" over plans and diagrams. Palmer continued to work on this idea for some years after.
Someone who was occasionally into illusions himself, American actor, film director, producer and founder of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford, was born Charles Robert Redford Jnr in Santa Monica on this day in 1936. He turns 75 today.
Arnold Betzwieser Collection