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Monday 8 October 2012

On This Day in Typewriter History: V for Victor or G for Gump? The Garbell Portables

PART 140
I’ve been dying to write about Max Garbell and his portable typewriters for ages. Garbell's sheer persistence impresses me, even if there is little today to show for it.
I first stumbled across his portables by chance, on a Garbell family website, where there are images of “Uncle Max”, his machines, his factory and his workers. These were a real eye-opener for me, as I hadn’t previously been aware of the Garbell (or the Victor portable for that matter). 
Max Garbell
The one Garbell portable (aside, perhaps, from the Venus) that doesn’t appear to have been made is the real beauty shown above, from its patent drawings. There’s just something about that design which really appeals to me. It ranks up there in my book with Wellington Parker Kidder’s Rochester, perhaps in a similar fashion to the way in which the 1913 Sphinx has Richard Polt spellbound. Maybe it has something to do with the irresistible lure of the unattainable. For me, a Garbell or a Victor would do. But a Venus would be perfect!
(Mention of Kidder reminds me to add that Garbell’s earlier designs, for thrust-action typewriters, suggests he had a high opinion of Kidder’s work. But Garbell preferred geared linkage to springs, as in Kidder’s Franklin, which was absorbed by the standard Victor, designed by a fellow Montrealean; three degrees of separation?!)
Garbell's workers, circa 1920
Garbell’s design puts me very much in mind of the Royal flatbed, discussed on this blog earlier today, the keyboard “steps” of the Standard 1 having won the heart of Scott Kernaghan (and many others before him).
Others will no doubt feel the Garbell design above is just too basic looking. But isn’t that one of the things that attracts us to the early Coronas and Underwood portables?
Garbell's office, circa 1920
From all I’ve read about Garbell and his efforts to build his dream typewriter, I’d be prepared to hazard a guess that this machine was his last throw of the dice. And that, given the nature of the problems he had encountered in getting a portable built himself, then by O.D.Jennings and then by the Victor Adding Machine Company, he went for sheer simplicity of construction: the cheapest and most straightforward way of getting a typewriter made. This thing slots and screws together like a Meccano set. It's almost a DIY typewriter! A kit portable.
Peter Weil Collection
Peter Baker, Ryan Adney and others have wondered out loud if we could ever get a real, working typewriter built ourselves. Well, here has got to be the perfect blueprint.
But others, like Will Davis, might warn us not to go anywhere near a Garbell design.  Will has the highest regard for Garbell’s ideals, and once described his designs as “ingenious”, but “too ingenious to debug”. Garbell almost certainly realised this himself, and thus came up with this “Typewriter for Dummies” design.
Will wrote an excellent article about Garbell and his typewriters in his “Portables, ETCetera” column in the March 2006 issue of ETCetera magazine, No 73. Will ended it by saying, “Max Garbell had experienced two serious failures in a row, certainly a hard blow for this very bright man.”
Yet should typewriter history judge Garbell harshly, as a complete failure? It seems that might be unfair, given that there was a typewriter designing career for him after Victor, with Royal in both Los Angeles and in West Hartford, Connecticut. His obituary, published in West Hartford, says Garbell was still working on Royal typewriter components, such as the back spacer and the colour selector, at the end of his working life.
As Will suggests in his column, Garbell was nothing if not a hard worker in trying to perfect typewriters – as well as adding machines, calculators (“computing machines”), printers, cash registers, recording machines and (also for Victor), scales. Between 1919 and 1950, Garbell was issued with no fewer than 57 US patents, 32 of them for typewriters or typewriter devices, and 43 of them for Victor. (Two of the typewriter patents were issued on this day, October 7, in 1930, giving me my long-awaited excuse to write about Garbell.) That’s not counting the ones issued to him in his native Canada, or elsewhere in the world.
Tilman Elster Collection
Garbell, who was born in Montreal on May 5, 1889, attended McGill University from 1906-08. He then crossed the border on his 19th birthday and settled in Chicago. In 1910 he was working as an adding machine “constructive engineer”. After naturalisation in 1916, he started work in the typewriter industry as an engineer at L.C.Smith’s plant in the Windy City in 1917.  
Garbell's naturalisation certificate
A week before his 29th birthday, in May 1918, Garbell (or Garbel, his birth name, as he was still known by then) branched out on his own to build a portable typewriter.
Garbell's first patent, applied for in 1918
It was the first attempt to eliminate springs from a thrust-action typewriter. He soon  established the Garbell Typewriter Corporation, based at 1812-14 Ellen Street, Chicago, and in March 1919 produced a 5½lb (in its case) baby three-bank. It was the first non-folding portable to reach the market, beating Lee Spear Burridge’s Underwood 3 by seven months.
But this was a design which Garbell continued to work on over the next two years, including getting help with the typebar guides in 1920 from a young draughtsman and “patent development mechanical engineer” called Leo J. Du Mais.
The Garbell venture failed, and in July 1923 former Oliver Typewriter Company president Henry K.Gilbert was called in as receiver. O.D.Jennings & Co purchased the business out of liquidation, including the rights to Garbell’s typewriter patents.

The Garbell’s low profile (just 4 inches high) might have appealed to many buyers. But given that Corona, Underwood and Remington had by the early 1920s ensured a highly competitive portable typewriter market, one which had already claimed the scalp of Fox, it seems hardly surprising that Garbell’s two enterprises, his own and with Jennings, quickly collapsed.
Undaunted, in 1924 Garbell went to work for Victor, with the initial plan being for Victor to manufacture Garbell’s “low-cost” typewriter. Again the venture failed, largely for the technical reasons so well outlined by Will Davis in his ETCetera column. Machines started to be made in April 1927, but the Victor portable typewriter was abandoned in 1928.

Garbell remained with Victor and after adding machine designer Oliver Johantgen died in 1932, Garbell turned his attention to recording machines, adding machines, cash registers, scales and other products Victor made, or intended to make.
In 1944 Garbell moved to Los Angeles to join Royal (still headquartered in New York) on a project to build a “computing machine”. Garbell patented two designs for Royal calculators, one of which can be seen below:
In 1947 Garbell moved to Royal’s West Hartford plant to oversee production of the calculator and he died in Connecticut on September 22, 1952, aged 63.
Paul Lippman in his book American Typewriters mentions the Venus, which he says was designed by Garbell and marketed in 1924. The designs for this, says Lippman, were used for the Victor.
The sum of the evidence suggests, I believe, that Max Garbell was far from a failure in the typewriter world. Quite apart from the 35-year career, ending with industry leaders Royal, his perseverance demands that typewriter history be kind to him.
As an aside, the Museum of Business History and Technology claims a 1924 Venus standard typewriter, manufactured by Venus Werf Neugersdorf of Germany, was “developed by Max Garbell.” However, I believe the museum is getting confused with the Venus portable.
I am indebted to the Garbell family website for images used here. See its Garbell typewriter page here.
Lee Garbell


L Casey said...

Man, I love those old thrust action portables. They make them so tiny, and then the typebar cover is just massive! Very appealing design, I'd say. Great article!

Will Davis said...

FABULOUS article. There is so much to think about here I don't even know where to start. I think I'll have to just read it all over again.

And.. thanks for all the mentions!

Bill M said...

Great article Robert. I really like that No.3, stunning. I wonder did they run into trademark problems with the Victor Co. in the USA.

Richard P said...

Very interesting story, thanks. It's good to know that Garbell's talents kept being used and appreciated until the end of his life.

I clearly remember reading the line "No specimens of the Venus are known to exist" in Lippman's book in spring of 1994 and instantly forming a resolution to find a Venus someday. I'm still looking. A couple of times I've come fairly close to getting a Victor or a Garbell, but with no success. We must keep our dreams going!

Richard P said...

PS: I also love the stairstep-style portable you picture at the beginning of the story. I'd never seen that drawing before. It reminds me a bit of a Merz.

Richard P said...

PPS: The factory photos here make it seem like a pretty busy place with a fairly large staff. Why is the Garbell typewriter so rare today?

shordzi said...

Wow, this is super interesting! And one more typewriter on my wish list.

Unknown said...

This is fascinating...I just found out this is my Grandfather. My father was Burton Garbell whom I was separated from at a young age.

Thank you for writing this article!

Robert Messenger said...

Dear Candice. So wonderful to hear from someone descended from Max. We'd love to hear more about him.