Among the interesting typing machines held by the Whangārei Museum, one caught my eye with its unusual design. A bit of research revealed a real engineering treasure.
Donated by R Andrews, this model is a Blickensderfer, Model 7, the first truly portable machine, invented by George Canfield Blickensderfer in 1891. George came from a family of inventors; must be something in the genes.
Two models (1 and 5) of his typewriters were first demonstrated at the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893. These models were originally to compete with the Remington brand.
The portability of George's invention was one of its big selling points as well as having a full keyboard.
The typist could see the typed work because of the rotating typewheel, when most contemporary typewriters had understrike keys.
When Model 5 was introduced in Chicago, it drew large crowds and orders came in from all over the globe, particularly Britain, Germany and France, even though these countries already had large engineering firms making advanced typewriters.
The Blickensderfer typewriters were made, at first, in a rented factory in Stamford, Connecticut. In 1896 a new factory was built and the typewriters it produced became best sellers.
The factory employed 200 workers and at its peak (1903-1907) produced 10,000 machines. There was little automation in the factory which meant the workers were very hands on as well as very skilled.
Model 5 sold for US$35, when other typewriters were more than US$100. Model 5 also came with a wooden carrying case plus an extra typewheel, a dozen ink rolls and a tool kit.
The cylindrical wheel had four rows of characters, upper and lowercase, italics and short words embossed on it. When the keys were pressed the wheel turned to the appropriate letters, collecting ink along the way. Later models included numbers as well.
The keys were scientifically arranged with the most frequently used letters on the lower row. This enabled the typist to type quickly with less strain on their wrists.
In New Zealand, the Blickensderfer typewriters were marketed by the New Zealand Typewriter Company. Their logo, a shield, is on the front of the museum's machine.
Also on the shield is the number 7. Model 7, developed in 1897, was the luxury version with an oak base, and a laminated oak Bentwood cover.
Some 63,000 Model 7 machines were made between 1897 and 1916. In 1901, the Blick Electric machine was launched, however it was a commercial flop as many homes and small businesses did not have electricity.
The impact of World War I was felt all over the globe and typewriter manufacturing did not escape. The Blickensderfer factory switched to munitions and by 1919 the factory was closed.
George died suddenly in 1917 and the family had lost their passionate engineering inventor and did not want to carry on the business. The Remington Company subsequently acquired the Blickensderfer property but by 1928 this acquisition was closed as well.
The present pandemic illustrates clearly how dramatic worldwide events such as major wars and widespread epidemics alter the balance where people and their livelihoods are changed forever.
• Alison Sofield is a collections volunteer with Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.