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Thursday, 15 April 2021

Fluffy Ruffles and the Quest for the ‘Q’ Factor: Noiseless Typewriters – ‘Silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of Sound’

 Alas! Alas! No longer shall the song of the typewriter be heard in the land

For no more shall Fluffy Ruffles* flip the keys with tuneful clicks

For the rattle of the Remington is banished to the Styx.

-       Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 1, 1908, soon after the Silent and the original Noiseless Typewriter Companies were incorporated, in Albany and Buffalo respectively.

*Fluffy Ruffles, above, was a 1907-09 New York Herald  comic strip character created by Wallace Morgan (1875-1948), the “Dean of American Illustrators”.  It was syndicated throughout the US and “Fluffymania” swept the nation. She was all the rage among young working women, often compared to the already well-established Gibson Girl, the personification of the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness as portrayed by the pen-and-ink illustrations of artist Charles Dana Gibson. Both Fluffy Ruffles and the Gibson Girl were associated with large hats, shirtwaists and hair piled high. Fluffy was the “type to which all the girls aspire” - she inspired songs, haughty pets were frequently named in her honour, and there was even a Broadway musical about her (in which both Florence Gear and Hattie Williams played Fluffy). There were references to “a Wall Street Fluffy Ruffles typewriter”, but Fluffy actually wrote society and arts in a newspaper office on Herald Square on the intersection of Broadway, Sixth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan. That is, until she became such a distraction to male journalists she was forced to work from home (as if there was a pandemic going on!).

As pointed out in an earlier post, in 1921 Remington was subjected to a great deal of biting criticism in US newspapers, from The Wall Street Journal in particular, because of its reluctance to acknowledge and embrace emerging patterns in the typewriter industry in the first two decades of the 20th Century. This notably applied to visible writing and portable machines, fields which were led by Underwood and Corona respectively. With the November 1922 settlement of a 21-month-long dispute between Remington’s “old guard” board of directors and a group of disgruntled shareholders, the Ilion company obviously decided to change its ways. Coinciding with the internal armistice, Remington launched its Model 12, which it called “The Quiet Typewriter”. This model, said Remington, was “the sum of typewriter merit”, in that it combined strength and reliability with what the company dubbed “natural touch”, “features which prevent mis-operation” (whatever they may have been!), the so-called self-starter automatic indenter and “a degree of silence in operation which insures the quiet desired in every business office” (Remington’s italic stress, not mine).

In launching its Model 12, Remington had become the second major typewriter company to embrace the “Q Factor” within 14 months – the other being Royal on October 1, 1921. In both cases, with patented designs from George Adam Seib for Remington and Edward Bernard Hess for Royal, the plan was to put “quiet” typewriters on the market to try to compete with the very apparent success of the Noiseless. (It was Royal which titled the “quiet” version of its Model 10, revamped by Hess, as the “Q Model”). In April 1921 Noiseless's "quiet feature" was held by The Wall Street Journal to be responsible for the company's excellent sales. But by October Royal was quickly catching up. Its sales for the previous month were 70 per cent higher than in August, which had been the best of the year. Royal's US domestic sales were its largest ever, and the launch of the "Q Model" was expected to maintain that upward trend. "Q Model" Royals and "Silent" L.C. Smiths were on the market at $105 each, while the Noiseless sold for $135, with the yet-to-be-quietened Remington (still the Model 10) at $102.50. 

Someone high up at Remington must have been reading and taking careful note of The Wall Street Journal’s critiques, or perhaps had been the “inside man” all along, feeding the Journal with information about his own company’s failings. If so, he got his way, because for the first time in its then 49-year history of typewriter making, Remington was reacting positively to a steadily emerging market trend. Admittedly, the notion of a “noiseless” typewriter had been around since at least 1887, when a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Western Union telegraphist named Ed Brandenburg claimed he had invented just such a thing. In 1891 Yost declared its typewriter was both noiseless and portable. That same year Smith Premier said its machine was the most “noiseless typewriter known”, while one of Jay Gould’s younger sons made claim to inventing a noiseless machine. In 1897 a Pittsburgh patent attorney listed a noiseless typewriter among 11 “Articles in Demand” (“It will pay you to invent any of the following”). The same year The Los Angeles Times wrote about 200 things wanted by the public: “A noiseless typewriter. There is a fortune in this invention. It would prove a blessing to the whole human race.” This very call had been echoed since 1892, and continued well into the 20th Century. In 1899 noiselessness was claimed for the Pittsburgh Visible, and the ubiquitous Harry Bates was among those backing a George H. Ennis electric noiseless in New York.

The Belgian Maximilian Soblik got a great deal of publicity in the US from 1900 for his pneumatic typewriter with fixed perforated keys that were operatively connected with an air compressor, operated by the feet. “All objectionable noise is entirely avoided," he said. By 1904 Soblik had moved to Düsseldorf to continue his work. The next year the typewriter patent term “substantially without noise” emerged with the start made by Wellington Parker Kidder and Charles William Sponsel on what would become the Noiseless. In 1907 the German Norica (Kührt & Riegelmann GmbH, Nuremberg) was advertised as noiseless and a similar boast was made about the Oliver. The plant to build the Buffalo-backed Kidder-Sponsel Noiseless was opened on June 1, 1909, in Middletown, Connecticut, under William Caryl Ely’s leadership. Also in 1909 a noiseless typewriter was developed in Austria, arousing some interest in the US. Then, of course, there was the ill-fated Albany-backed Silent Typewriter Company, a sort of subsidiary of Noiseless and involving Ely, Kidder and Charles William Colby. Quite why two companies had to be incorporated to make the same machine remains a mystery (at least to me).

The Noiseless, with its creeping tiger logo, did finally reach the market, in March 1912, under the guidance of Kidder, William Albert Lorenz and Joseph Albert Ronchetti. By that time, however, the Middletown plant had already closed and its workers laid off, and the original company called in the receivers in October 1913. This company changed its name to the Middletown Typewriter Company in June 1914, and three days later a new Noiseless Typewriter Company was incorporated, under the presidency of Joseph Merriam. It took over the Middletown plant, which was in part set aside for making munitions during World War I, and re-employed former workers. Eventually, in May 1917, the upgraded Noiseless went on sale, 15 months after Typewriter Topics announced it was ready to go.

In the period between 1911-15 there were two rather bizarre claims from so-called “inventors of the noiseless typewriter”. One was “Noiseless Joe” O’Byrne (1879-1929), a former miner in Jarbidge, Elko County, Nevada, and later professor of descriptive geometry at the Colorado School of Mines, whose idea was no more than a large casing device to create a “vacuum chamber”. “I remove the noisy medium, air, from around the machine,” O’Byrne wrote in his patent application. Two years later he said he had sold the rights to a Springfield, Massachusetts, typewriter manufacturer for $10,000. (Densmore, which had manufactured its machines in Springfield, had shifted to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in September 1905.) O’Byrne did achieve some fame, designing the landmark “M” on Mount Zion and creating Foss’s ice cream. Another “noiseless” typewriter idea came from John Sanders McRaven (1870-1951) of Little Rock, Arkansas, a man with extensive experience in the typewriter business, who in 1914 wanted to manufacture in Cincinnati an upright platen machine which would be “almost noiseless”.

In September 1915 L.C. Smith had made an effort to convince potential buyers that its Model 8 “would seem to be as nearly silent as human ingenuity could make a typebar machine”. Typewriter Topics said the industry “has had practically no advance knowledge” of its arrival. L.C. Smith labelled the typewriter, designed by Carl Gustav Gabrielson, as the “Silent Smith”, when by its own admission it had merely reduced noise by between 50 and 75 per cent. This was primarily down to ball-bearings. “The most striking feature of this new writing machine,” said Topics, “is its silence. It meets in no uncertain manner the growing demand for a quiet machine, and fulfils what many regard as the chief issue in the campaign of making and marketing typewriters.” Topics explained that “Ball bearings throughout continue as a Smith Brothers feature which has been an immeasurable benefit to operators of that machine, speed and light touch as a consequence of the ball-bearing construction now being even more attractive to the user than heretofore because of the present accompanying noiselessness of operation.”  

Five-and-a-half years after the new Noiseless had appeared, Remington put its “Quiet” Model 12 on the market, having come to a conclusion about market trends more rapidly than it had ever done before. And it had more than competing with the Noiseless on its mind. On the surface it seemed the Noiseless had turned out to be a typewriting triumph, and on November 15, just as hatchets were being buried in the boardroom at Ilion, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia awarded Colby, representing the resurrected Noiseless company, the Longstreth Medal for engineering a “thoroughly successful commercial noiseless typewriter”. Yet a mere three weeks later, on December 5, the company filed a final certificate for dissolution, ending its corporate existence in Connecticut. Why? It was moving to Delaware, to become on January 30, 1924, the Remington-Noiseless Typewriter Corporation, with Remington president Benjamin La Fon Winchell at its head.  George Gould Going, who had worked for Noiseless, transferred his allegiance to new masters and quickly set about adapting the Noiseless into the Remington-Noiseless (the hyphen was significant, in that the product wasn’t a noiseless Remington, but the result of Remington and Noiseless amalgamating).

So much for Remington’s own attempt at a “quiet” typewriter – which, after all, had only ever been an attempt by Seib (who also designed the Remington 10) to reduce noise by padding the interior of the mask and further enclosing the mechanics.  His November 1922 patent application stated that, “One of the specific objects of the invention is to provide a noise reducing or sound deadening frame for a typewriting machine; another object is to provide closures, plates or panels having sound deadening characteristics to a marked degree; and another object is to provide an improved typebar rest which minimises the noise due to the impact of the typebars on their return after printing, and is moreover so related to other parts of the machine as to assist in providing a substantially enclosed space to accommodate the actuating mechanism for the typebars.”

In this, Seib was merely following the example of Hess, who had patented something approaching Kidder’s Noiseless typebar action for the Royal “Q Model
. In his July 1921 patent application, Hess said, “the typebars abut against a striking plate which serves to assist in stopping the movement of the bars and to ease the intensity of the impact of the type on the platen. In such machines considerable noise is made when the type strike the platen and when the typebars impinge on the striking plate, and the principal object of my present invention is to materially reduce such noise. This I accomplish by eliminating the striking plate and by a new way of connecting the key levers with the typebars which is such that the depression of the keys will cause the type to be raised positively to a point in front of the platen and a considerable distance therefrom and thereafter to be moved into contact with the platen by the momentum of the typebars. This is done each time that a key 1s depressed and before it has commenced its return movement after depression. In this way, while the typebars are carried upward with an accelerated movement this movement is arrested quickly before the type reach the platen while the momentum of the typebars, obtained by this accelerated movement, causes the type to impinge the platen with reduced force and with consequent reduction in noise but with sufficient power to make clear impressions.”

The Hess patent, in terms of the “arrested” typebar movement, indicates a closer relationship to what Kidder, Nils Hjalmar Anderson and Going had, between them, achieved with the Noiseless. Royal promoted its “Q Model” by saying it had “an impressive quietness of operation”. The new Model 10 was unveiled to the company’s staff in February 1922, but The Wall Street Journal, forever nudging Remington along, had declared the Royal to be both “practically noiseless” but “not absolutely noiseless” in a puff piece published on October 1, 1921. It compared the sound of the Royal to “the very light running shuttle in a modern sewing machine”. So pleased was Royal with the Hess design that it took the unusual step of including the patent number in its advertising, describing it as an “exclusive mechanical feature”. Royal said the Special Model 10 was the “typewriter of today – and the future. [It] embodies the last word in a light-running, quiet key action.” But the quiet was “notable” rather than “complete”.

Was there ever such a thing as a “completely noiseless” typebar typewriter? Remington began to advertise its Model 7 portable as such in 1948. But four decades after Fluffy Ruffles had stopped flipping the keys with tuneful clicks, the novelty had quite worn off.


Bill M said...

It's amazing, in a way, even modern ink jet and laser printers are not noiseless.
I do know the Selectrics and Wheelwriters we had in the typing pool at the medical center where I worked were quite less noisy than when the room was previously filled with type bar machines.

Richard P said...

Fascinating topic.

Check out the Joerissen, a prototype silent Underwood in Herman's collection.