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Sunday 16 September 2012

A Tale of Two Ambassadors: The Amazing Hermes 56-Device Typewriter

Giuseppe Prezioso and Joseph Barkdoll were two great typewriter designers whose careers straddled the 1939-45 war and reached on into the 1960s: Prezioso working for E.Paillard in Yverdon, Switzerland, and Barkdoll for Smith-Corona in Groton, New York.
It’s a delicious thought to ponder them getting together to merge two their most significant post-war projects: Prezioso electrifying the carriage of his Hermes Ambassador, Barkdoll electrifying the keyboard of his Smith-Corona 5 Series.
In 1957 Barkdoll adapted his 5 Series portable typewriter so that the typebars were electrically powered. Smith-Corona promoted the 5TE as the world’s first electric portable typewriter. It is certainly one of the best typing machines I have ever used.
At least 14 years earlier, in 1943, Prezioso had been working on a power-driven carriage for the Hermes standard-size typewriter. An induction or asynchronous motor was developed to be fitted to the Hermes Ambassador, which Prezioso designed in 1948.
Georg Sommeregger Collection
I have just in the past week introduced myself to the full array of 56 devices on this utterly amazing typewriter, which, like the 5TE, is a truly magnificent typing machine.
Among its devices are:
1.   Typebar dejammer.
2.   Optional motor for carriage return and line spacing.
3.   Two ribbon vibrators, one for use by a normal ribbon and one for a carbon ribbon. The adjustment from normal to carbon ribbon is done with the colour selector.
4.   Magic margins.
5.   Switches to flick back card holder shields from the platen.
6.   Stencil supports.
7.   Handle for speed introduction of paper.
8.   The tallest paper support structure you’ve ever seen!
9.   Removable platen.
10. Copy or notebook holder.
I have taken the liberty of using a diagram of the Ambassador's features scanned in by Georg Sommeregger, because the one in my manual is too heavily marked to be scanned. The list is from my manual, so I hope the numbers are compatible.
Like most other Typospherians, I resist electric typewriters and try to limit the standard-sized machines in my collection (for very obvious space reasons). There must always be exceptions to the rules, however, and the experience of using my two Ambassadors made it well worth breaking away from standard practise.
Both of my Ambassadors were made in 1963. The one with the motor and the full bank of decimal tabulation keys has the serial number 937715 and the one without the motor has the serial number 938766.
(In my researches on the Ambassador, I came across an image from Elizabeth Herreid [littleflowerpetals] of her later model Hermes Ambassador on flickr, posted more than three years ago now. In the comments, Mike Clemens made some extremely interesting observations about using a very large standard typewriter such as this vis-à-vis a portable. His comparisons are well worth reading.)
I should point out that the Ambassador weighs 45 pounds (without the motor) and the base is 14½ inches wide (20 inches including the carriage lever, 19½ inches from knob to knob), 17 inches in depth and 9½ inches high (15½ inches taking in the massive structure of the paper holder). This is one BIG typewriter.
*Regardless of how great I found these two Ambassadors, THEY HAVE TO GO! I simply cannot keep two typewriters of this size. So anyone out there who wants one (or both) and is prepared to pay for shipping, let me know and one or either of the machines is yours for free.
Charles Gu at lists a later model for $995. He says of the machine: “This is the one manual typewriter designed to make crisp, distinguished work of any and all jobs a manual could be asked to perform. It has the most complete features that lend themselves to easy, fast and accurate operation in its class. Designed for the office with a heavy typing load, the Hermes Ambassador is the beyond-the-call-of duty-typewriter. Note: In addition to the regular ink ribbon, this machine also accepts carbon ribbon, which is discontinued.”
Georg Sommeregger Collection
I should explain how I came to have two Ambassadors. Well, in the case of the first one, the non-electric, I have absolutely no idea where it came from – or when it came into my possession, or from whom. All I know is that it was for some years in my large storage unit at Fyshwick, jutting out from an “aisle” that was supposed to let me get to the back of the unit. Every time I went to get a typewriter from the back, I had to hurdle this monster. I just kept saying to myself, “One day I’ll summons the energy to clear this aisle, and lift that giant and give it a test type.”
Not so long ago, I started looking at Prezioso patents. Although I had seen the 1948 one for the Ambassador before, I hadn’t previously noted that at the back of it was a power socket. “Oh, oh,” I thought, when I finally did spot it. “That Ambassador I have in storage has no power cord.” I hadn’t even bothered to look at the back of it, to see if it had the same power socket. As it turns out it doesn’t, it’s a manual.
Having given this matter no further thought, or mentally listing it as an urgent task, on Tuesday the Ambassador popped back into my mind. This was a huge day, which included a school typewriter presentation and a visit from Scott Kernaghan. Scott was interested in a later model plastic French-made Hermes 3000, and as I dug around looking for one for him, I noted I still hadn’t “got” to the Ambassador, now back in my house from storage but still buried beneath other machines. “Must get to that machine one of these days,” I yet again muttered.
Lo and behold, that same night I got a call from a woman looking for “a good home” for a typewriter. Her mother-in-law, aged 91, had just died. The old lady had used the typewriter right up until the time of her death. It was a Hermes Ambassador. Two thoughts immediately entered my head: 1, How could a lady of 91 handle an Ambassador? 2. Damn, I already own an Ambassador, a seriously neglected one at that. What would I do with another?
Nonetheless I agreed to pick up the Ambassador the next morning. It was on a front doorstep, with an IBM plastic cover over it. The first thing I noticed when I took off the cover and lifted the Ambassador was that it had a power cord. Not one with both male and female ends, but one that ran in under the typewriter. “Now that’s VERY interesting,” I thought.
I took it home, immediately plugged it in, heard no sound, saw no on-off switch, and looked around for a “return” key. That’s when I saw the large keytop with the lightning bolt symbol on it. “This must be it.”
I hit it. Then I just about jumped right out of my skin. “Come and have a look at this,” I yelled to son Danny. He, too, was flabbergasted. Thus began an odyssey of more than 48 hours of utterly fascinating discovery about the attributes of my two Hermes Ambassadors, including filming them for this post. It was interrupted by the olive green Oliver portable arriving and some rugby. My, oh my – what incredibly intriguing things typewriters can be. So much to write about, so little time.
So much more to find out.
Anyway, back to Prezioso, who in Switzerland  led the way in powering up the back end of a typewriter while in the United States Barkdoll was still thinking of powering up the front end.
It can be seen from this 1943 US patent application for a line spacing device that Prezioso had by then already incorporated the arm used for the motor adaption in the Ambassador.
Prezioso’s original 1948 design for the Ambassador shows a machine that was in fact made as the Hermes Regent, with the switches for the Perspex card holder shields on top of the ribbon cover, but without the decimal tabulation keys and the copy holder in front. In June last year, Richard Polt looked at the Regent on his Writing Ball blog
The mysterious Hermes Regent from Richard Polt's blog Writing Ball
Prezioso had help in this work, notably from Jacques de Raemy with the magnetic motor and from Enzo Asoli and Eric Bacher with some of the other devices on the Ambassador.
Through these contributions, the Ambassador developed into a multi-purpose typewriter. In a manual for the Hermes 3000, a PDF of which Richard Polt has kindly made available online here, the manufacturers plug other Hermes models and say of the Ambassador, “The office typewriter of great efficiency: automatic introduction of the paper, note-book holder, intermediate paper table, electric carriage return and line spacing (also available without motor).”

With motor
Without motor
With motor arm
Without motor arm
The Ambassador’s design allowed for the asynchronous motor to be fitted into the back section – and without that addition the Ambassador is fully manual. Also, notably, the Ambassador has two ribbon vibrators and by simply turning the colour selector it can be switched from carbon ribbon typing to normal cotton or nylon ribbon typing.
Among my favourite features are the knobs which push the Perspex card holder shields back from the platen, especially for cleaning purposes (Oh, if only all typewriters fitted with Perspex card holders had this device – particularly those on which the typist has used liquid paper).
With decimal tabulation keys
Without decimal tabulation keys
Scott Kernaghan has pointed out that my typing style is a fast two-fingered method, and given this, the button which readily disengages typeslugs jammed at the printing point is an absolute gem of an invention. Among other things it is called a “dejammer” and an “unstick” button.
Other Typospherians have sung the praises of the Ambassador. In late 2010, Tom Furrier (Cambridge Typewriter Co, Life in a Typewriter Shop) apparently refurbished one for Matt (Adventures in Typewriterdom). Matt loved the machine, and variously described it as “Godzilla”, a “wildebeest”, the typewriter equivalent of a Boeing 747 and the Titanic. Matt said with the Ambassador’s typing touch it would “wipe the floor” with the Olympia SG1 – it’s in “another Universe”, a “Hermes 3000 on steroids, and then some”. Matt called the Ambassador “the smoothest typewriter ever built” and the one with “the most features”.
I would not challenge any of Matt’s assertions. I don’t think he is exaggerating in the least.
Adwoa Bagalini spotted one of these for sale in its native country, in Geneva, and described it as a “flawless mechanical beast”, a “marvel to behold” and “brobdingnagian” (Brobdingnag is a fictional land in Jonathan Swift's satirical novel Gulliver's Travels occupied by giants.). Others have called the Ambassador “gigantic”, “huge”, “gargantuan” and a “behemoth” with the “smoothest carriage return”. One claim is that the Ambassador is “the best typewriter ever made” and one response was “I could almost like an electric if it’s that effortless”. All of these seem fair comments.
As Richard Polt pointed out in a comment on Matt’s post, a number of body styles for the Ambassador can be seen on Martin Elster’s site hereThese machines are from the vast collection of the late Tilman Elster, Martin’s father. On the European Typewriter Project put together by Tilman Elster and Will Davis, the Ambassador is described as a “Highly advanced office machine introduced in 1948 with a number of novel features.  The flat front is intended to hold copy for the typist, and function keys are arranged conveniently in a new pattern.”
Three years ago Dan Norton-Middaugh also acquired one of these monsters and on the online typewriter forum at Yahoo pointed out it has “some features I've never seen before … First, this is a manual office machine, but it sports two ribbons – a standard fabric ribbon, and a thin film ribbon (like the later model IBM typebar machines). I've never even heard of a manual with a film ribbon! Second, the platen pops out by pulling on two tabs, one on each platen knob. I've run across some platens that were easily removed, but this removes the platen without the knobs, so you could just pop it out and send it off to be recovered without doing anything else. Third, the clear card holders retract by twisting little knobs set [positioned] up by the cloth ribbon reels. Every other system I've seen just uses springs (if anything). The whole thing is remarkably over-engineered, and quite beautiful for it!
“It has a paper injector that you can set to pull the paper in from two to 32 lines; the back space button is huge (3/4" by 1&1/8" - the same size as the tab key); the carriage assembly is held on by two 9mm nuts; it weighs about 32lbs; and it's silky smooth to type on.”
In July this year Ryan Adney at Magic Margin showed a non-electric Ambassador stripped of its outer casing, revealing a breathtaking inner design – one with all the hallmarks of Prezioso’s genius with typewriter framework.
Martin A.Rice Jr at the Johnstown Type-Writer Conservatory amusingly describes the Ambassador as “the monstrous, the mythical, the fabled Hermes Ambassador, 45lbs of Swiss engineered steel  … If you can only have one type-writer (because your wife won't let you have more), make it a Hermes (or, file for divorce)!
FOOTNOTE: For those who may be interested in such information, the Australian importer and distributor of the Hermes Ambassador was Dataprint, which had branches in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Albury and Perth. The company went out of business in 1973. It seems Dataprint was licensed to fit the motor to the Ambassador, and to service the machines.
Here are some YouTube demonstrations of the Ambassador's features from Scott:

Size comparisons:
Remington 16
Remington International
Adler Universal 20 (also MUST GO!)
Olivetti Lettera 82 (same as last model Hermes Baby)
Underwood 3


Mark said...

Nice Adler Univeral 20. I have one that types in script. If the shipping from Australia wasn't bound to be a nightmare I would gladly take one of the Ambassadors!

Richard P said...

What a story -- video and everything!

I had never seen an electric Ambassador; thanks for showing us and for explaining how it electrifies only the carriage return. An interesting approach.

These are truly impressive beasts. I am only sorry that I ruined mine by jamming and breaking something when I was trying to get the platen out (I do not find that system easy or intuitive). At least, as a parts machine, it was able to provide a new paper injector mechanism for Matt Cidoni's Ambassador.

notagain said...

wow. I came close to getting an Ambassador, but someone got it. I wonder how much postage would be to Tacoma WA, USA...?

Unknown said...

These machines are so great! I love the font-face of the non-electric one. If the postage would not cost more than $200 (according to Australia Post website), I'd take that.

zmkc said...

Hello, I love your blog. I'm assuming someone already took your spare Ambassador off your hands. If not, I would be interested in the non-electric one, if you still don't mind parting with it. I live in Ainslie in Canberra so you could always visit it if you missed it. Let me know if you still need a new home for it and I will happily come round to pick it up. Best Zoe
Oh, but it looks like Mr Molnar has already snapped it up now I look at the comments

Anonymous said...

This brought back some good memories I worked on all the Hermes TWs and adding machines.
All the way up to the Hermes 51.
I forgot abought the cabon ribbon
selection and the margin ribbon in the paper bar.

Anonymous said...

Just acquired one without the front mounted ribbon spools. S/N 852961, 1959. Was this an option?

nmatavka said...

Is the electric Hermes a full electric or one with a "motorised" carriage return? AFAIK, Paillard made three kinds of Ambassador. The first one, a manual, came out in 1949; this was followed in 1953 with the motorised version (nowhere did Paillard itself call it an electric), and then finally by the electric Ambassador in 1963.

I assume the "electric" one you've got isn't the real electric; it still has the carriage return arm, and the keys aren't covered by a metal shield/ . The motorised one can be used as a manual if you unplug the cord. It's also a good deal rarer than the manual, and the 100% electric is rarer even than that.

nmatavka said...

I also seem to remember that Japy brought out a desktop machine with Hermes Ambassador innards but a body out of French steel. Dark blue if I remember correctly, with weird shaped Shift keys (I think one of the prototype Ambassadors had keys like that as well).

Cat McKenzie said...

I have just been reading your Ambassador review. I know this is most likely a long shot given the age of the post but if you are still giving away one or both of your Ambassadors, I would very happily pay postage.

Your blog is great. So much info.


Regina said...


I see that I am many, many years late but I wondered if you still happened to have the Ambassadors? I would be very much interested in the mechanical one and live in Canberra so could pick it up. If you don't happen to have it anymore, do you know where I can best find one locally? I'm a law student at ANU and have started up a collection but really wanted a desktop one. :)

Many thanks,

Robert Messenger said...

Hi Maria (and Cat). The Ambassadors are, as you suspected, long gone. I do have large standard size machines here, including a Royal Empress and a couple of Olivetti Lexikons. You are welcome to come have a look.

Buford Sides said...

I suspect that the Hermes Ambassador that weighs '45 lbs.' is the electric model? The reason for that is that is because I recently acquired a manual 1963 Hermes Ambassador (S/N 947383) a shipped to my home in California from The United kingdom. Thankfully, the seller packed it with care (just as he said that he would), and it arrived at my home in California having suffered no apparent damage during it 5100- mile journey. According to UPS, the item weighed a total of 41 lbs. including its double shipping box and its packing materials. From what I have been told, the manual Hermes Ambassador weighs 32 lbs.