Martin Howard is a collecting type
Martin Howard is a collector. When I asked
what made him decide to collect antique typewriters – was he fascinated
by typewriters, by writing? – he said no, not particularly.
"I was looking for something mechanical,
something antique, to collect," he said. "I'd be just as happy
collecting cameras, or sewing machines."
His collecting began 15 years ago when he
came across an old Morse Code learning machine, a mechanical device with a
large windable watch spring and interchangeable cogs with Morse messages
on them that a student could practice and varying the speed at which the
dots and dashes sounded.
A couple of years later, in a junk shop in
Aurora, he came across a device called The Caligraph, the third typewriter
to come onto the world market around the 1880s. From these simple little
finds has grown one of the most extensive collections of its kind in North
America. Howard's focus is on the design evolution of the modern
typewriter, the machines that were the precursors to what we now know as
the standard typewriter.
What makes this collection fascinating is
seeing the many varieties of systems that the various machines used to put
an inked letter on a blank page. So many of us use keyboards today – or
have used typewriters in the past – that we take their design for
granted. I knew, for example, that the standard keyboard layout – QWERTY
as it is called in the biz – took awhile to develop. But I did not
realize that there was typing before a keyboard.
Called "index" typewriters, they
used a single letter imprint system that, by today's standards, was
extremely slow and methodical. Some used a dial with the letters on it
which the user would spin to the desired character and then operate a
punch-like device to make the imprint. Others used a sliding bar with
characters on it. One of Howard's machines – a German model called the
Mignon – used a pendulum pointer to select the letters for imprinting.
And when keyboards were used, they were as
varied as could be. Howard has a model called The Hammond which is one of
the most interesting-looking of the keyboard models. It is made of a
beautiful dark wood, has a curved front – a sort of half-round – with
ebony keys. Another model, The Oliver, used a double 'Shift' (modern
typewriters use a single 'Shift') system that eliminated the need for
four rows of keys. It used only three.
Several of Howard's typewriters are works
of art. The Crandall, for instance, is an 1885 Victorian beauty with
gleaming black metal complete with inlaid mother-of-pearl designs, and a
single-type element similar to the IBM 'golf ball'. Or there is what
Howard calls his "first diamond," a Columbia, which was found in an
estate sale and which Howard picked up in Port Hope. It is one of only 100
that were ever made, and is in mint condition, the nickel gleaming, its
beautiful wooden box protecting it over the years in storage. This
Columbia was one of the earliest machines to use proportional spacing,
adjusting the letter placement on the page depending on the width of the
letter used. It even came complete with a tiny squeezable ink dispenser
for adding ink to the pad.
Then there is the 1881 Hall Model 1, the first technically portable
typewriter to come onto the market. There were only about a thousand of
those ever made. Or the Lambert No. 295, a mint condition sample of an
interesting machine that used a pressable dial – very similar to an old
telephone dial – to select the letters. Interestingly, its inventor
Frank Lambert also invented a talking clock in the 1880s that was the
first example of the recorded human voice, well before Edison.
Howard's many examples also demonstrate
the way in which the paper itself was fed into the typewriter. What was
obvious was that most of the time back then you weren't able to actually
see the letter you just put on the page. It was awhile before the "front
strike visible" – the system that enabled the user to see what he was
typing – became the standard. One assumes that typing accuracy was a
highly valued skill in those days gone by.
By his own admission Howard's collection
has reached "a critical mass." He has more than 50 machines of varying
sizes and would like to find a better way to display them then on the
shelves of his basement.
While his website –
www.antiquetypewriters.com – is one way of showing them to the public,
it doesn't really convey the physical beauty that seeing them in person
would. He would like to find a more permanent site for the collection, and
has been in touch with a couple of museums (if you know of a good place
give him a call at 416-690-7432).
Until then a visit to the website is your
only chance to see these amazing examples of the evolution of the modern