Communicating with flair
Jan 1, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I have a few New Years traditions and one of my favorites is looking through correspondence I received during the past twelve months. I like to keep cards and notes given to me by friends and family. There is something special about having a tangible memory like a heartfelt greeting written in a loved one’s handwriting. For my money, it’s just so much more personal than emails filed in my inbox. While we’ve already explored the revolutionary side of the typewriting industry, in this feature we’ll review a trio of unique machines. These typewriters give new meaning to “communicating with flair”…
First up is the mighty Mignon. This German index typewriter was first introduced to the public in 1905, about 35 years after the industry started. You may be asking yourself – what exactly is an index typewriter? I like to think of it as a mechanized index card. To operate the Mignon, the author moved the pointer over the desired letter and then pressed a key, which then stamped said letter onto the paper and prepared it for the next character. When you consider the efficiency & familiarity of our QWERTY keyboard, the choreography behind the index system seems difficult. But soon secretaries and letter-writing enthusiasts were able to type at the dizzying speed of 100 characters a minute. To the turn-of-the-century business owner, this fast pace was a big boom for corporate productivity. Due to this warm reception the Mignon remained a popular model for the next three decades.
If you’re looking for a standard keyboard, but also love a little drama then Oliver Typewriter Company is for you. Their Batwing typewriter is like a piece of miniature architecture. This iconic company was founded in Chicago and defined the fledgling typewriter industry. Their bold designs were coupled with a desire to provide power and durability, which meant that they not only worked really well but looked super cool. I’d go out on a limb and say they were like the Apple of the Victorian era! During this time, the simple act of typing out a letter was state of the art and the radical Batwing fed into the mystique. The cool factor worked as nearly half a million typewriters were sold during their manufacturing peak. What’s also interesting to note is that this avant-garde design came from the mind of a Methodist minister. (Further proof that innovation happens at the hands of passionate observers!) Thomas Oliver was always interested in how things worked and on one fateful afternoon he watched a stenographer at work. After a flurry of typing, the stenographer had to anxiously await viewing the final product to check for accuracy. Oliver knew there had to be a better way and created a prototype that allowed typists to see their words as they typed them. That’s a pretty big innovation, especially when you consider he had to learn about the mechanisms from scratch! Legend has it that the pivotal moment in the design process came to him in a dream and I for one am grateful for his vision. The Batwing is a beautiful sight to behold – a perfect union between form and function.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the Hammond Multiplex typewriter. This New York based company was passionate about connecting people and cultures through the written word. The company motto “for all nations and tongues” wasn’t just a marketing tagline – it guided their design efforts. Their shuttles could be easily interchanged, which meant someone could type up a note in English and then quickly start typing another portion of correspondence in a different language. In an era when international travel wasn’t easily accessible to the masses, it’s really incredible to see a company bringing a global perspective on a domestic scale. The Multiplex pictured in this article I also find to be ahead of its time. Today the marketplace is overflowing with different ergonomic keyboards and some of the styles are heavily curved. You may think this idea is new, but think again – in 1915 the curved keyboard was included in the Hammond catalog. While it didn’t take off then, it paved the way for modern styles.
What I love about these examples is that they are all snapshots of an emerging technology. Much like the early Apple computers, they convey a sense of fearlessness. It’s like witnessing a moment when someone says “I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but I’m going for it anyway!” All of these typewriters offered slightly different ways to achieve the same goal and I really enjoy the diversity. It makes our modern laptop seem so blah, like it’s lost its whimsy. But history continues to inspire future generations and as new technologies develop we’ll see more of these spirited creations. I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick tour – tell us in the comments how you plan on communicating with flair in the new year!