Monday, January 23, 2012

A Key for Every Character

QUESTION: My grandfather had an old Corona portable typewriter which he left to me. It’s a small machine with the No. 3 on the rim below the space bar. I believe the serial number is 125512. I’ve looked for some information on it but haven’t found much. Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: Your typewriter dates from the second half of 1917 and is part of a long line of machines created to make writing easier. It began in 1714 when Queen Anne of England granted a patent to Henry Mill for a writing device that enabled the blind to write. Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri created his own version of a typewriter in 1808, along with carbon paper to provide the ink for his machine.

In 1829, William Austin Burt patented a machine called the "Typographer" on which he produced a letter to Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. But even in the hands of its inventor, this machine was slower than handwriting, preventing Burt and his promoter John D. Sheldon from ever finding a buyer for their patent. The typographer used a dial, rather than keys, to select each character and resembled the squeeze-style label makers of the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1843 that Charles Thurber invented a machine that operated in way similar to modern typewriters.

Rev. Rasmus Malling Hansen of Denmark invented the Hansen Writing Ball in 1865. It went into commercial production in 1870 and became the first commercially sold typewriter. He made a porcelain model of the keyboard and experimented with different placements of the letters, attaching the letters to short pistons that went through the ball and down to the paper to achieve the fastest writing speed. By placing the letters so the fastest writing fingers struck the most frequently used letters, Hansen made his Writing Ball the first typewriter to produce text faster than a person could write by hand.

In 1867, Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first practical typewriter. Commercially known as "The Type-Writer," it had a moveable carriage, a lever for turning paper from line to line, and a keyboard similar to that of a piano with two rows of black walnut keys with letters printed in white—capital letters only along with numbers 2-9, a comma and a period. Sholes also created the QWERTY keyboard layout to prevent frequent jamming of frequently used letters.

Philo Remington of the Remington Arms Co. manufactured the first marketable Sholes machine in 1874. He sold only eight the first year at $125 each. And after four years he had only sold 5,000. Three businessmen bought and reinvigorated the company under the name of the Remington Typewriter Co. in 1878.

The history of the Corona typewriter is similar to these other early models. The four Smith brothers—Lyman Cornelius, Wilbert, Monroe, and Hurlburt—opened the Smith Premier Typewriter Company in 1886. They produced the first typewriter to use both uppercase and lowercase letters using a  double keyboard. The advertisements for their new machine proclaimed that it had "a key for every character."

During 1906, the Rose Typewriter Company of New York City marketed the first successful portable typewriter. The Smith brothers bought the company in 1909, renamed it the Standard Typewriter Company, and moved its headquarters to Groton, New York. And with the success of their Corona model No. 3 in 1914, the firm became the Corona Typewriter Company.

By that time, the design of the mechanical typewriter had become standardized. While there were minor variations from one manufacturer to another, most typewriters had keys attached to a typebar that had the corresponding letter molded, in reverse, into its striking head. When the operator struck a key briskly and firmly, the typebar hit an inked ribbon, making a printed mark on the paper wrapped around a cylindrical platen mounted on a carriage that moved left or right, automatically advancing the typing position horizontally after the operator typed each character. The carriage return lever advanced the paper vertically for each line of text as it rolled around the platen.

Until recently, antique dealers considered old typewriters worthless, but prices of them on eBay have begun to climb. Of course, higher prices only appear for the most unique models in excellent condition. A Corona No. 3 model from 1917 ranges in price on eBay from about $50 to $190 without its case and $400 for one with its case.

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