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Tuesday 15 April 2014

John Conrades Wahl and the Remington-Wahl Typewriter

John Conrades Wahl (1876-1952). This 1922 passport photo is, I'm afraid, one of the very few, very small resolution images available online of Wahl.
It struck me yesterday, when writing about the Remington bookkeeping typewriter in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, that very little if anything has been written in typewriter histories about John Conrades Wahl.
Popular Mechanics, October 1923
Indeed, not a lot has been written about Wahl at all, and almost all of what has been written pretty much relates to the pens and pencils associated with his name.
Typewriter Topics, 1922
Based on my research into Wahl's life, I would have to say that his achievements in inventing an adding and subtracting machine and a means by which this could be attached to a typewriter far outweigh whatever contribution he actually did make to the history of pens and pencils. But that may be just my biased opinion - Wahl is definitely far better known today in connection with pens and pencils than he is with typewriters, or, for that matter, adding and subtracting machines.
Wahl was born on a farm at Bear Creek, outside Morrisonville, Illinois, on February 7, 1876, the son of German-born parents, Conrad (1834-) and Mary Anna Meister Wahl (1839-1918). Morrisonville is south of Springfield.
Susan June Estabrook Wahl (1875-1946)
From 1896 Wahl worked as a machinist in Peoria, then St Louis and Chicago. On October 23, 1897, he married Susan June Estabrook (1875-1946), also from Morrisonville. They were wed in Taylorville, near their hometown. While the couple were living in St Louis, on September 19, 1898, they had a son, John Estabrook Wahl.
John Estabrook Wahl (1898-1985)
Young John graduated from Cornell in 1922 and went on to work for the Wahl Company in Chicago in the mid-1920s, becoming an inventor himself. By 1930 both father and son were divorced and lodging together in Chicago. According to one report, the divorce of John senior and June Wahl was well publicised; the settlement apparently impacted considerably on John senior's business arrangements. By 1940 John junior was working as a mechanical engineer in Dayton, Ohio, while John senior was in an old folk's home in California - but still inventing. Even then he was described as an "experimental engineer" for Eversharp pencils.
That 46-year, 50-plus patent career in inventing started after John senior had completed an extensive correspondence course in draughtsmanship in 1902, providing him with a qualification which earned him a job as a tool designer with the Universal Adding Machine Company in St Louis - an outfit taken over by Burroughs in 1908. (Universal, by the way, described its products as "A Typewriter Carriage on an Adding Machine.") He also designed watchmakers' precision tools. But by 1904 John senior had accumulated enough knowledge, experience and finance to establish his own adding machine company, in his own name.
One brief profile of John senior states that in 1903 "he designed one of the earliest visible typewriting machines". This seems improbable, as the visible writing typewriter had been perfected 10 years earlier by Franz Xaver Wagner, and there is no patent to support the Wahl claim. What John senior did file a patent for in 1907 was a "key action" invention (schematic above) which was a precursor of "touch control". Referring to a Remington typewriter, he wrote, "In machines of this kind there is apt to be non-uniformity in the appearance of the printing on the paper. If a light fingered person manipulates the keys, the printing is apt to be more or less faint, while if a heavy fingered person strikes the keys, the printing is very heavy and perhaps the paper is cut by the type. The main object  of my invention, therefore, is to provide improved action mechanism intervening between the keys and the type, which mechanism will automatically cause the type to strike the platen with uniform force independent of the pressure or force exerted upon the keys."
In October 1904 Wahl applied for a patent for the invention that would make him his fortune - the means of attaching a "calculating machine" to a typewriter. Three years later it was adopted by Remington (the patent wasn't issued until 1908).
In 1905 the Wahl Adding Machine Company was incorporated and a plant erected in Chicago for the manufacture of the adding and subtracting machine. In 1907 a contract was negotiated with the Remington Typewriter Company which covered a period of 18 years, to 1925.
Above and below, 1909 adverts
Above and below, 1910 adverts
The demand for the Wahl Mechanism Remington standard typewriter grew steadily until eventually, in September 1920, after a restructuring of his companies, Wahl sold the rights to manufacture the attachment to RemingtonThis involved all of Wahl's machinery, equipment and patents.
In 1915 the attachment had won for Wahl the Franklin Institute's John Scott legacy medal and premium from the City of Philadelphia, as well as the Edward Longstreth Medal of Merit for the Advancement of the Mechanical Arts. And in the same year he won the Industrial Medal of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
Earnings from the attachment, used by both Remington and another Union Trust typewriter company, Smith Premier, meant that by that time Wahl had already moved on to other interests. 
In 1915 the Wahl Company took over a controlling interest in Charles Rood Keeran's Eversharp Mechanical Pencil Company. In fairness, Wahl was to be issued with patents for innovations to the mechanical pencil beyond whatever Keeran had invented (the Wahl-style push button lead advance mechanism seen in the Doric pencils, for example).
Keeran had been unable to keep up with production demands and Wahl was able to buy out his shares. The Wahl Company began mass-producing Eversharp pencils and in 1917, the newly-formed Wahl-Eversharp Pen Company bought out the Boston Fountain Pen Company, famed for its high quality pens. In 1921 Wahl released the first line of its self-filling pens and in 1929 moved from hard rubber to Pyralin (celluloid), producing the beautiful, plastic Personal Point line. In 1945, Wahl-Eversharp teamed up with Eberhard-Faber to produce ballpoint pens, but in 1957  Wahl-Eversharp was purchased by the Parker Pen Company.
 John Conrades Wahl


Ted said...

Interesting! I'd heard of the Wahl calculating attachment and the Wahl fountain pens, but did not know they were the same Wahl. I wonder if third-generation typewriter repairman Bill Wahl here in Arizona is related somehow? I'll have to ask him.

Richard P said...

Love the ads -- especially the ones for Doric pens.

Estabrook: no connection, I suppose, to Esterbrook pens!

Don Lampert said...

Very interesting! Does anyone in our "gang" have a typewriter with the Wahl mechanism on it? It would be great to see some real photographs of one, and maybe a video of one in operation!
Do we know if they came as part of one of the typewriters, or could be added to an existing writer?
I'm going to be on the lookout for one. I love stuff like this - thanks for the great posting
Yes, the color Art Deco Doric ads are especially nice.

Robert Messenger said...

Thank you Ted, Richard and Donald for your comments.
Ted and Donald: One of these was offered to me a few years ago when a railway museum in Broken Hill was breaking up its collection. I spoke to Bill at the time. He said, "Hey Robert, I have heard of the machine and seen information about them but have never seen one in person. But there is no connection between my family and the machine! Would make a great story if it were true...!Thanks for the question!! Let me know if you get a hold of one!"
Richard, it seems Richard Esterbrook (1812-1985)came from England. I think it's probably a coincidence (almost). See
Donald, I have seen a few of these in museums and collections but, apart from the one mentioned above, have never thought to own one. The takeover news item from Typewriter Topics explains that Wahl made the attachments and sent them to Remington to be attached. When Remington took over in September 1920, it did all that itself. Wahl kept increasing the size of its Chicago plant, but obviously still couldn't keep up with demand. After 1907 the attachments weren't sold separately. On the proceeds of the sale, John C and family travelled overseas, but on return to the US the marriage broke up. The divorce settlement meant John C wanted to stay at arm's length from his various enterprises - let someone else run them while he stayed in the background.

Robert Messenger said...

PS Donald: Wahl capital was also revised downwards by a sizeable amount, so Wahl would have seen it made economical sense to sell the rights, machinery, tools, patents etc rather than spend more money on further increasing factory size.

Robert Messenger said...

PPS Donald: I have added an image of the one offered to me at the top of the post.

Bill M said...

Very interesting about Mr. Wahl. I remember the I.C.S. class offerings quite well. I almost enrolled in one or more.

I did not know that a typewriter adding machine existed before reading this post. I also did not know John Wahl invented so many things, and the company still exists as a big corporation.

Like Ted I too wondered as I read this if Bill Wahl was somehow related to John Wahl.

Took me 2 days to get through this post, but I am glad I did.

Thanks for all your fine work Robert.

Robert Messenger said...

Thanks, Bill. You did see my comment about asking Bill if John Wahl was a relation? The present day, ressurected Eversharp is connected in name only - it's not a direct descendant.

Jon Veley said...

Hello, I write The Leadhead's Pencil Blog ( and in today's installment, I offer a link to your excellent article here and added a few details to the story. The full address of my article is

Keep up the good work!

Jon Veley

Erik Bruchez said...

This is more than 5-year-old but very interesting post, as usual! I am getting very interested in those Wahl machines.

Regarding Donald Lampert's comment:

> Does anyone in our "gang" have a typewriter with the Wahl mechanism on it? It would be great to see some real photographs of one

I have a really nice Remington Model-23 Bookkeeping Machine:

I also have a Remington Vertical Adder Model-121 which I am restoring now (fall 2019):

See in particular the "restoration in progress" album:

A few other machines are around. I'd love to see whether an upstrike Remington with Wahl attachment has survived, or any of the other brands which, for a short time, provided them as well (Smith Premier, in particular). I have seen Robert's posts on machines in Australia as well.

> and maybe a video of one in operation!

Hopefully, that will happen once the Model-121 is done!

> Do we know if they came as part of one of the typewriters, or could be added to an existing writer

Initially, this was offered or at least advertised as an "attachment" which could even be removed. But I believe that in practice those were always sold already attached to a machine, in particular the Remington 11. In later machines the Wahl mechanism was completely integrated into the machines, although you can remove it for maintenance.