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Wednesday 17 July 2013

Give the Man His Dues: Thomas McCall and the Hooven Automatic Typewriter

In 1917 Thomas Abijah McCall was awarded the John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium for inventing the Hooven Automatic Typewriter. Oddly, however, I cannot find one print or online typewriter history that gives McCall, of Cincinnati, credit for this machine.
The Franklin Institute and Philadelphia City's John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium, created in 1816, is a medal presented to men and women whose inventions improved the "comfort, welfare, and happiness of human kind" in a significant way.
From Thomas Russo's Mechanical Typewriters
The Hooven Automatic Typewriter solved the problem of reproducing form letters and documents many times without the obvious "giveaway" of using carbon paper or a mimeograph. This is something we take for granted today, with the use of computer printers. But in 1906, when McCall invented what would become known as the Hooven, it offered to answer the prayers of many large businesses and corporations - not to mention government departments (although at least one US department, Commerce, found the Hooven "too expensive"). In 1924, the Hooven Automatic, complete with an Underwood No 5 typewriter, cost $650 and the Perforator was an extra $75.
But the makers said that a typist with four Hoovens could do the work of 12 to 16 typists. The Hooven was to be described as a "robot come to life", a machine capable of producing "letter-perfect"  yet "real, individual" letters.
While the Hooven is well-known among typewriter historians and collectors, its origins have been strangely overlooked. Michael Adler, for example, mentioned both the McCall and the Hooven automatic typewriters, described them identically, yet listed them among manufactured (Hooven) and unmanufactured (McCall) machines - without making the very obvious connection between the two. They are one and the same typewriter!
The September 1907 issue of Typewriter Topics offered a very good clue:
Sure enough, in 1908 McCall filed for a US patent for this machine:
And this is what it eventually became (as sold not so long ago for $7500, more than 10 times the original asking price, by Branford House Antiques of Vermont):
Here is the perforator McCall designed for his machine in 1912:
This is how it looked:
Russo Collection
And this is how it worked:
The two components, as seen in Ernst Martin:
The inventor of all this, Thomas Abijah McCall, was born in Runnells, Polk County, Ohio, on May 30 1866. The family later moved to Xenia, Ohio, where in 1906 McCall invented a pneumatically-operated massage apparatus. (In 2002 McCall's design was referenced for a clitoral treatment device by UroMetrics Inc and in 2005 for treating incontinence by NuGyn Inc. It was still being referenced up to last year.)
Soon after McCall moved to Columbus. He established the McCall Automatic Typewriter Company there in 1907, but failed to get his typewriter into production. The next year he moved to Cleveland to take up a chance to manufacture the machine, which had been offered by Clinton Earle Hooven, a Princeton graduate and son of a wealthy, nationally-known industrialist  John Clinton Hooven, of the Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Company. McCall assigned his improvements for the automatic typewriter to Earle Hooven's Automatic Typewriter Company. In 1911 the operation was moved to Cincinnati, where a new company, the National Automatic Typewriter Company was established. The automatic typewriter finally went into production in 1912, but was called the Hooven, not the McCall
Development of McCall's machine continued on into the 1940s, but McCall himself had no further input beyond 1914, when he invented an envelope attachment for his machine. Instead, Earle Hooven first employed John H.Pillings to work on areas such as the carriage mechanism, and then later, over a number of years into the 1930s, Kelley D.Evans continued the work.
Clinton Earle Hooven, who gave his own name to McCall's typewriter, was born in Hamilton, Ohio, on April 23, 1870. He died in New York City on September 26, 1942.
A Condensed History (Typewriter Topics)
Roberts had nothing to do with the original concept of this particular machine.
American Typewriters (Lippman)

In 2011, after I had written in ETCetera about Alfred Traeger's Australian Morse typewriter, German typewriter collector and historian Thomas Fürtig wrote to then ETCetera editor Richard Polt saying he thought the Traeger was based on the same mechanical design as his Hooven perforator. Richard and I thought the resemblance was coincidental:

The Hooven Automatic Typewriter Company is now Hooven-Dayton Corp.  In 1935 the company moved to Dayton, Ohio, changed its name to Hooven-Dayton and began supplying businesses with printing solutions. Today, Hooven-Dayton is a narrow web converter and speciality printer.
The Hooven-Dayton article above reads:
This Hooven came before laser printers and before photocopying when the practical and inexpensive method of copying letters was with carbon paper or a mimeograph. Unfortunately, either method used produced a letter that was obviously a copy and readily identified as a form letter. While there were a few other inventions that duplicated a letter by rewriting it, the Hooven Automatic typewriter became the preferred technology during most of the first half of the 20th century.
The Hooven used the same punched-hole paper tape technology that player pianos used in 1912 when it was first introduced in Cincinnati by The National Automatic Typewriter Company. It was driven by electricity and was probably the most successful early electric typewriter.
The first electric typewriter, George Blickensderfer's magnificent machine, was introduced just 10 years earlier. However, in 1902 electricity was still used mostly for lighting. In large urban areas it was only provided to residences during evening hours. So the Electric Blick was a typewriter that frequently could be used only at night. The Electric Blick was around for a short time and today is a very scarce machine and arguably one of the most sought after and most valued of all antique typewriters.
The Hooven, programmed by the punched hole paper roll (today, we would call it software) simply repeated and typed the same letter over and over while occasionally pausing for the attendant to type in personal information (name, addresses, dates, etc.) that gave the letter a definite impression of being an original. It was often used by Hollywood stars in answering their fan mail, including known Hooven users Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It was advertised that one secretary could easily run three to four Hoovens at the same time and produce the results otherwise requiring a dozen typists.
There were two machines required. The Hooven Automatic Typewriter, which was a specially modified Underwood No 5 (Underwood installed heavy duty carriage return springs) which was attached over a patented Hooven mechanism on a special cabinet and stand to catch and hold the paper roll and side shelves to hold stationery. The second machine was the perforator which was about the size of a typewriter and punched (typed) the required holes into the paper roll. An advertisement in 1920 listed the Hooven Automatic Typewriter priced at $710 and the perforator at $75. Combined, this was about the price of two new Cadillac automobiles.
A paper roll program could produce about 30 letters before needing replacement and the two machines, with a good maintenance program, would last for years. The relative expensive cost of the machines kept the technology from many users until Hooven established a letter typing service in New York with outlets throughout the United States where people could bring or send their letters to be "Hoovenized". This made the technology available and affordable on a pay as you go basis. For an example, you could have a 100 word letter Hoovenized for only $.04 per letter, 200 words for $.0325, 300 words for $.0283 or 400 words for $.02625 per letter. There was a 5% discount on lots of 500 letters, 10% discount for 1,000 letters, and 15% discount on 5,000 letters. Of course there were special quotations available for larger quantities. Also, pen signatures were available for $3.00 to $5.00 per 1,000; carbon copies were $.01 each (Hooven supplied the tissue and carbon paper), addressing envelopes was $5.00 to $8.00 per 1,000 and foreign languages were 25% extra plus a roll-cutting charge. Today you can make a photocopied letter at Staples for about the same price it cost to have one Hoovenized nearly 100 years ago.
C. Earle Hooven was the president of the National Automatic Typewriter Company and remained president through several name changes including the 1919 change to The Hooven Automatic typewriter Company when the company moved into the old American Can manufacturing plant in Hamilton, Ohio. Mr. Hooven was president for over 30 years until he died in the early 1940s. He was also the longest resident to reside at the historic 1863 Lane- Hooven House which his wife had inherited. Today, it is a restored historical building and an important part of Hamilton, Ohio's heritage. The house is available for tours and possesses one of the other few still surviving Hooven Automatic Typewriters. The Hooven Automatic Typewriter and Hoovenizing letter writing services were very popular until World War II. After the war, IBM and other electric typewriters offered affordable and less maintenance required technology that obsoleted the Hooven and today, very few specimens of this early electric typewriter survive.

As a complete aside, there was another Tom McCall involved with typewriters - former Oregon Governor Thomas Lawson McCall (March 22, 1913 – January 8, 1983).  A native of Massachusetts, he worked as a journalist, including time at Portland's The Oregonian during World War II. Later he worked in radio and then in television as a newscaster and political commentator. While working for TV station KGW, he produced a documentary on pollution in Oregon, which helped to spur environmental cleanup of the air and the Willamette River. In 1964, McCall won his first political office, Oregon Secretary of State, followed by two terms as Governor. As governor he worked towards environmental clean up, the Oregon Bottle Bill and public ownership of beaches on the Oregon Coast. 


Rob Bowker said...

So this looks like a close relative to the century-old jacquard weaving loom and, more pertinently, the Monotype typesetting system which must have been only 20 years old by the time the Hooven came along and possibly both played within earshot of their second cousin, the pianola. I'm just getting towards the end of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and the proto-socialist dream of labour being eased by automatic machines is really brought to life in these inventions or 'discoveries' as Tressell would have it. And I suppose the art installations you read about involving typewriters hooked up to motors - or even usb devices - are an echo of the excitement which must have surrounded them. The line below this commentary box which says "Please prove you're not a robot" still gives pause for thought...

Robert Messenger said...

Well actually, Rob, some of those thoughts crossed my mind too, but I was more concerned with some guy putting his heart and soul into this creation and getting almost no credit. Almost as bad as being laid off because they think they can get by with four hands when the job actually demands 14. Frankly, I'd still rather get a letter written on one typewriter by one person.

TonysVision said...

Now that printing multiple documents is a matter of typing a number into a box and clicking the "print" button, it is a bit of a stretch to imagine the world of the Hooven. We have come a long way in generating print materials. Actually, most of my clients now prefer documents delivered electronically as PDF files. We read our newspapers and magazines - and blogs - online. We correspond via texting and email. Through all of this change, the typewritten letter stands out as more and more unique as a tangible connection with the writer. As my granddaughter has said with penetrating clarity, "Nothing was erased, nothing was edited, it's just raw and so very beautiful".

Miguel Chávez said...

Expensive, indeed. That Hooven machine with the perforator cost an equivalent of $ 9,626.46 of today's dollars! That´s a lot of money, to be sure. Almost eleven times the cost of a Remington portable of the era. I wonder if that kind of thought played a role in the Department of Commerce thinking on this machine as "too expensive".

More on the subject: "The makers claimed said that a typist with four Hoovens could do the work of 12 to 16 typists..."

If one Hooven was worth the same as 11 very good portables, four of them would equal the cost of buying 44 typewriters. So the money they saved by not paying the other 11 to 15 typists they had to spend it buying the equivalent of 44 typewriters... that doesn't quite make much financial sense to me, at least not in the short-term scenario. Of course, this calculation is made based on the price of a concurrent Remington portable ($60.00 USD). I'd love to know how a good desktop cost back then to make this comparison more accurate, using its current-day value. But you get the idea...

I can also imagine that storing those perforated forms would be rather space-consuming, and that this invention would be practical and financially viable only when you made lots of copies of one single document. I think you could use it to type "pre-printed" contracts and forms, for example; but even if you sent the same basic letter to all your customers, you'd still have to personalize them with their name and address in another machine...

Don't get me wrong. I'm amazed by this early example of device programming. It is very ingenious, but it was too ahead of its time. Maybe that, and the inherent costs of buying and operating such a complex machine in a time where the only "programmable" things, like Rob said, were pianolas and looms, were the reasons why this invention didn't catch on.