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Blick Featherweight 1910

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Rem-Blick 1928

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typewriterThe title of first true portable typewriter belongs to the machines designed and built by George C Blickensderfer (1850-1917), a brilliantly original American engineer.  But, ironically, it was not a portable typewriter that he set out to make.  Rather, Blickensderfer set out to make a desk machine to rival Remington’s desk models. The resulting Blickensderfer 1 was a revolutionary design, with far fewer parts and hence much smaller and lighter, but unfortunately no examples of this first machine have survived. His typewriter used a rotating typewheel that could be quickly replaced to change typefaces, anticipating the  IBM ‘Golf Ball’ by half a century. This design also enabled the typist to see the typed work at a time when most typewriters were understrike machines that concealed the writing. When Blickensderfer unveiled his Model 1 at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, these revolutionary features attracted huge crowds and a full order-book – many of them from Britain, Germany and France whose business machine markets were more highly developed than the US. However, at the same Exhibition he also showed a stripped down version of the machine, called the Model 5, intended to be a cheap version for customers with low budgets.  In the event, it was this low-budget version that caught public imagination and the machine that the Blickensderfer factory in Stamford, Connecticut, turned out in the tens of  thousands between 1895 and 1917.   It was Blickensderfer's genius as a mechanical designer that enabled this lightness and simplicity.  His design is completely outside the mainstream -- almost shocking in its simplicity.  Whereas a Remington or Underwood desk machine contained around 2,500 parts, Blickensderfer's machine contains only around 250.  Hence he was able to sell it for the incredibly low price of $35.   Blickensderfer’s machines also had an innovatory keyboard layout. He placed the most commonly used letters DHIATENSOR along the first row of keys, claiming this to be a more scientifically efficient layout, and made QWERTY keyboards available only by special order.  In 1909, the company started to produce the Number 5 machine in aluminium and the following year produced the Blick Featherweight with a fold-away ink frame. This machine, famously described in ads as 'The Five pound Secretary' is almost certainly the lightest portable typewriter ever produced. Sales companies were opened in England, France and Germany, and for the first few years of the new century production rose. However, the advantages of Blickensderfer’s design were temporary. Underwood and then Remington launched ‘visible writing’ machines.  The new Royal company introduced its compact, visible machine in 1906.  From 1908, when the first Standard Folding portable was launched, Blickensderfer sales started to fall off. The final blow fell in 1914 with the outbreak of war. Whereas the rival Corona company received orders totalling 30,000 machines from the US, British and French armies, Blickensderfer received no war orders and found its European markets cut off by the conflict.  Blickensderfer attempted to diversify, including manufacturing a typebar machine designed by Lyman Roberts, under license, as the Blick 90. This machine was a complete break with the Blickensderfer philosophy and a return to the conventional front-strike 3-bank Qwerty keyboard design. Production of the Blickensderfer, the Blick 90, and all other manufacturing finally ceased in 1917 with George Blickensderfer’s death. There was no obvious successor to take over the company and the typewriter business simply died out with him.  Lyman Roberts now raised finance and in 1919 bought out the Blickensderfer patents, machine tools and factory but only in order to continue manufacturing his own typewriter. In 1922, trading from the Blickensderfer works, Roberts began production of his machine, renamed as the Roberts 90, under the banner of the L.R. Roberts Typewriter Co. Production of the Roberts 90 lasted two years and ended in 1924.  Two years later, in 1926, wishing to add a low cost machine to the bottom of its portable range, Remington bought the Blickensderfer tools and dies from the defunct Roberts Typewriter Company. And in 1927-8, Remington started the production again of the Blickensderfer 5, now re-named the "Rem-Blick". The Rem-Blick was only in production for around 9 months, from December 1927 to about September 1928 (perhaps less) and Richard Polt estimates that only around 6,000 or so machines were made, making surviving machines fairly rare. Yet, curiously, quite a number of variants were produced among this relatively small output. Some machines were made for export to Germany, with a Qwertz keyboard, as well as machines destined for the UK where, oddly, they were known as the "Baby-Rem".  Other machines were produced with the variant name "SP-Blick" (for "Smith Premier Blick").  Most Rem-Blicks had the standard Remington Qwerty keyboard, but a few machines were produced featuring Blickensderfer's pet "scientific" keyboard with Dhiatensor on the bottom row. The Rem-Blick was advertised by Sears in 1929 for $22.50, and in 1930 under the name "The Blick," for $19.75.  The Remington design team thoroughly "Remingtonised" the Blick wherever possible: they covered the distinctive sloping wooden case with the same leatherette fabric used for the Remington Portable case; they changed the keytops for the white celluloid keys of the Remington, and they gave the platen a thumbwheel from the Remington Portable.And they designed a new name and gilt decal (transfer) to announce its new ownership and identity. Yet, curiously, the Remington design engineers did not change the original Blickensderfer design in any detail. This is curious because they had a golden opportunity to correct some long standing errors and omissions. For instance they could have easily added a backspace key, and easily made the case just an inch longer so that the space bar would not have to fold up and the typewriter could have been used in its case. Perhaps they felt that to meddle with Blickensderfer’s design was sacrilege – or that the machine should succeed or fail on its original merits. At any rate, the newly launched machine appeared to be successfully  accomplishing Remington’s aim of filling the low-cost slot at the bottom of its range, yet after only less than a year, production was ceased. It may be that the Rem-Blick was dropped to make way for the new Remington No 3 Portable, which the company made its flagship machine from December 1928 and which went on after its launch to sell more than 300,000 machines over the next few years.  Or it may be that the market had become sophisticated and no longer wanted an idiosyncratic Victorian design with no back-space key and no two-colour ribbon. After no less than three encores following the death of its inventor, the unique Blickensderfer design finally disappeared for good at the end of 1928 just as the first truly modern generation of portable typewriters was emerging from the factories of the big name manufacturers such as Remington, Underwood, Corona, Imperial and Royal.

 

 

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Photographs by courtesy of The Stamford Museum