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Tuesday 22 November 2011

Underwood Portable Typewriters 1919-1991: Part Two

For the second part of this series on Underwood portables in my collection, let's start by backtracking a little to dwell on the Underwood 4 coloureds, beautiful portable typewriters produced in an array of bright colours and striking patterns in the early 1930s.
Following Remington's example with its early portables, Underwood had used colours and patterns very successfully with the Underwood 3 and the earlier model Underwood 4, including woodgrain finishes in red, green and light and dark shades of brown (ash and walnut), as well as mahogany.
With this later, more streamlined Underwood 4, Underwood used Jade green, Mahogany and Walnut brown, Colonial blue, French gray and this orange-red fire engine colour (Mandarin red).
Now for an Underwood portable that in fact isn't an Underwood portable, but worthy of inclusion here nonetheless.
Just before he died, on October 2, 1924, Wellington Parker Kidder sold the rights to his Noiseless portable typewriter to Remington. With those rights went more than 30 years of almost constant development, from the thrust-action Wellington (aka Empire, Adler) through to Kidder’s unfulfilled ultimate dream of the Rochester.
Remington wasn’t interested in the tiny portables Kidder spent his last years working on, but did look to producing a portable version of the standard-size Noiseless typewriters which applied Kidder’s type action technology.
For this project, Remington put its top design engineer, George Gould Going, to work on a wide range of patents, first assigned to the Remington Noiseless Corp and later to Remington Rand.
By 1929, Going (above) had pretty much perfected the Remington Noiseless portable, though further patents for improvements to it were to follow.
Going was a Canadian by birth, but lived most of his adult life in New York City. He was born at Tillsonburg, Oxford South, Ontario, on June 15, 1872, the son of an Irish-born vicar.
Under a highly unusual arrangement, Remington made almost identical models of its Noiseless portables for Underwood. What makes this deal all the more mystifying is that the Underwood Noiseless portable carries on its back false claims of Underwood patents and manufacturing.
It seems possible that after merging with Rand Kardex and the Powers Accounting Machine Company in 1927, to become Remington Rand, Remington began to lose some interest in the Noiseless project, but had invested heavily in the tools and dies set up to make them.
Quite remarkably, no sooner had his company mastered – through Going – a Noiseless portable typewriter but Remington Rand’s boss started heading off in an entirely different direction.
In 1932, James Henry Rand Jr himself patented a design he described thus:
“My invention relates to typewriting machines and is directed to means for converting at will a noiseless machine into a noisy machine, by which means a noiseless machine in its operation may be made to produce a noise such as is produced in the hammer-blow typewriting machine when the types strike the platen.
Jim Rand, front and centre, left, with General Douglas McArthur. "I shall return," declared Rand, "the Noiseless to the 'noisy' ".
“In the operation of noiseless typewriting machines there is a pronounced psychological effect on some operators, especially those who have previously operated noisy machines. This is due to the fact that in operating a noiseless machine the operator hears no noise, and the ‘touch’ on such machines is usually much lighter than in noisy machines. Therefore, the operator has the mental attitude that she is not writing or obtaining any result from the operation of the keys, or that she is not attaining her usual speed, due almost wholly to the entire absence of the usual clatter to which she is accustomed. It is difficult in some instances to overcome this purely mental attitude, or to convince the operator that she is in fact writing at possibly an even greater speed than she ordinarily attains on a noisy machine, and with the expenditure of less effort.”
Was Rand kidding? Can you believe it? Kidder, having developed his unique “trellis” (resulting in the “kiss” typing action on his Noiseless) must have been spinning in his grave!
The notion that Remington, which started marketing its Noiseless portables in August 1931, had already started to go off the concept by the following year (when Rand patented his “noisy” idea) is supported by the fact that the Underwood Noiseless portable first emerged in 1932.
Mike Clemens' Remington Noiseless
It’s interesting that in the September 2005 issue of ETCetera (No 71), Rich Cincotta ran a feature on Going, quoting many tributes paid to him, including one from Rand, who spoke about the ”fortunes sunk” into perfecting the Noiseless.
But enough of a portable that is not really, strictly speaking, an Underwood typewriter.
While Going was beavering away on the Remington-Underwood Noiseless, across at Underwood William Albert Dobson (born Connecticut, November 1871) was working with Alfred Gustav Franz Kurowski, Louis Andrew Nemcovsky and other Underwood designers on a number of improvements to the Underwood 4 portable, developing first the streamlined Universal and then the Champion.
In 1938 Dobson created a whole new look for the Underwood portable, (patent drawing above) the most marked changed in appearance since the first Underwood portable, the three-bank, had appeared in 1919.
These were also called Universals and Champions, but the design was completely different. So, too, was the vastly improved typing action.
In 1949, another model was added to this line, the Leader, which was a much more basic version of the Universal-Champion.
However, to compensate for certain mechanical features absent from the cut-price Leader, Underwood went for a more appealing look.
It blatantly copied Henry Dreyfuss’s 1945 updated design for the Royal Quite DeLuxe by having a black (or very dark charcoal grey)lower section with the by-now traditional Underwood "French" grey on top - no "Viking grey" for Underwood! The Leader also did away, finally, with silver-ringed keytops.
Will Davis looks at the changes in Underwood portable design on his Underwood page at his Portable Typewriter Reference Site
Will says, “Underwood did practically nothing to the overall design in any major way [from 1919-1926] until the machines were (finally) converted to basket shift in the 1950s. Until then, styling changes and enclosure of the ribbons had to make do for updates.
“[The Universal] was competitive when introduced [in 1938], but was outsold handily by competing Smith-Corona and Royal machines. One notable feature of this machine, though, is its wonderfully precise typing feel. The feel of the standard machines seems to have been transferred to this machine, only slightly diluted.”
TOMORROW: Underwood’s last independent throw of the dice – 1950s state-of-the-art styling and a return to the bright colours of 30 years earlier ...


Bill M said...

Very nice article! I've enjoyed both part I and II. The Underwoods are really special and unique machines. I grew up with one of them. I now have a 1927 Standard four Bank Portable and a Noiseless. That Noiseless is a really unique work of engineering. Thanks for your great series.

Machines of Loving Grace said...

The attempt to make a "convertible" noiseless may explain this queerly worded ad for the Noiseless 8: "This new Remington Noiseless makes it possible to turn off, by the mere touch of a button, the staccato, nerve-wracking clatter of typewriting."