Antique Typewriters

The Martin Howard Collection

Martin Howard is a collecting type
By Bill MacLean

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.

One of Howard's 'index' models used a sliding bar with characters on it. 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.

Howard holds a mint condition Lambert No. 295 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 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 day keyboard.