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Tuesday 30 March 2021

Typewriters in the Sky

A woman alights from a Westland Limousine with a Royal 10 typewriter in July 1919.

This blog has shown in the past few months that Britain can lay claim to very few “firsts” in typewriter history. But one I think it may be entitled to relates to using typewriters in the air. In its June 1920 edition, Typewriter Topics drew the attention of its American readers to “The Business Man’s Aeroplane” taking to the skies over England. Topics said the plane was “equipped as an office” and illustrated the point with photographic evidence provided by the English Speaking Union, an international educational charity founded by journalist Sir Evelyn Wrench in 1918. In the same issue of Tropics the Corona advertisement showing a man using the folding portable while flying in a Curtis JN-4 ‘Jenny’ made its first appearance (see below). The ‘Jenny” had been in the air since at least November 1917,

“The Business Man’s Aeroplane” had, in fact, been flying in Britain for almost a year before Topics caught sight of it. The first mention of an aircraft specially fitted for typewriter use that I can find appeared on the front page of the London Daily Mirror on January 28, 1919, with a large halftone under the heading “Up-to-Date Business Man’s Flying Office”.  But this is clearly a Royal Air Force plane – the image shows it with an RAF roundel (the RAF was formed in April 1918) – and not the aircraft in the Topics images.

The aircraft in Topics was a Westland Limousine, a single-engined four-seat light transport biplane built for Westland Aircraft Works by Petter’s Ltd in Yeovil in south Somerset and powered by a Rolls-Royce Falcon Mark III engine. The first of these commercial aircraft took to the sky in July 1919. It was developed by civil aviation pioneer Robert Arthur Bruce (right, 1869-1948) as the “private motor car of the air”. Its use as a plane in which “a business man can dictate letters to his typist and sign the completed letter while on his way to his appointment” was publicised on August 2, 1919, after successful trial flights.

Between 1919 and 1921 there were many claims about the original use of a typewriter in the air, but this British breakthrough would appear to have got up there first. In the United States, Joplin, Missouri, editor Philip Ray Coldren (left, 1882-1955) claimed he was the first newspaper man to type a story in the skies after going aloft with French-born barnstormer Joseph Benjamin ("Joe Ben") Lievre (1888-1980) on January 13, 1921. Coldren had a Corona strapped to his knees when he entered his aviation cauldron. “I made up my mind to write something on a typewriter in an airplane and by the time we were 10 feet up I began. Every time we dipped a little I took my hands from the keyboard to grab the frame of the plane … I wouldn’t have unfastened the belt for the finest editorial inspiration in the world.” During a loop-the-loop the Corona’s carriage toppled over on to Coldren’s fingers.

This what Coldren typed during his flight:

“Well, here we are some hundreds of feet off the ground with Joe Ben Lievre trying to do something new under the sun. So far as we know there never have been any editorials written in an airplane, though it strikes us as quite possible that some day in the future the big editors are going to take advantage of this new system for getting clear of Mother Earth for a nice quiet place to write. Why not? Up here there is some noise, it is true, but they used to say of Horace Greeley that he could write just as good an editorial with a brass band playing as in perfect quiet.

“This typewriter is showing signs of engine trouble, but probably the trouble is with the engineer. Sure hope it doesn’t fall down with us at this altitude (!) Just as we got this written we ran into a heavy fog, which, of course, means that we are in a cloud. Under the circumstances, a man’s thoughts might be expected to be a little cloudy, might they not? But if one got used to it, he ought to be inspired to write some real ‘high-brow’ stuff.

“One impression to be gained from this altitude is that the entire district is pretty small, after all. It seems queer that some of the people who live over toward the north there should ever get it into their heads that their needs and desires are any different from those people who live such a little way over to the south. Probably if more people would take airplane rides they would have a broader vision.

“There is another moral pointed by this airplane business, too, and that is that it is a lot pleasanter to go up and straight ahead than it is to go down. There is a sinking sensation that some portion of your anatomy registers when you start on the downward route that probably is not much dissimilar to the feeling of a man who wakes up after a morning of dissipation and feels he is on the way to Gehenna. [In rabbinic literature, Gehenna is a destination of the wicked.] 

“Too many writers have written about the wonderful view from an airplane to make any attempt of the sort justified here, but it is a fact that a man up in an airplane gets an entirely new idea of what a beautiful country southwest Missouri is. There may be others equally as beautiful, but -

“Lievre just shouted back that he is going to loop-the-loop –

“He did!”


Bill M said...

Loop-the-loop with a typewriter, that's interesting.
I never dreamed someone would take a Royal 10 on an airplane.

Richard P said...

"High-brow" stuff — haha!

Bill G said...

As with Coldren's accounting of the experience, the resulting Corona advertisement itself is a classic.

John Cooper said...

The first Skyriter!

Coldren's mention of Gehenna was more likely a callback to its many mentions in the New Testament than a reference to rabbinic literature. It was frequently used as a euphemism in the days when a plain reference to Hell was considered impolite at best.