One day after Typewriter Day
(Gee, does everyone feel this flat the day after?)
EMERY MANVILLE HAMILTON
AND THE IMPROVED AUTOMATICOne classic example of an inventor whose quest for the holy grail of typewriters went on beyond his glory days of producing machines is Emery Manville Hamilton.
Some typewriter historians are of the opinion that Hamilton had already found the holy grail when, in 1888, the magnificent Automatic – or Hamilton – typewriter was built.
Hamilton is only remembered for this machine, which leading collector Martin Howard described as “Hamilton’s masterpiece” in a thoroughly researched main feature article in the December 2010 ETCetera.
“It is exquisitely made,” wrote Martin, “predominately out of brass, with the quality and look of a fine scientific instrument.”
Paul Lippman in American Typewriters (1992) said the beautifully crafted Automatic “is the smallest understroke typebar typewriter ever made (11 inches by 8 inches by 4 inches) … ” Martin put the weight at 12lb and said the Automatic’s box “is about the size of a box of chocolates”. He also pointed out the Automatic was the first manufactured typewriter with proportional spacing. The typebars are a mere 1½ inches long.
Martin quotes from The Phonographic World of May 1992. “The Automatic was withdrawn from the market in 1891, after an expenditure of about $60,000 for its introduction, the stockholders refusing to invest further, and the factory closed.”
Martin speculates that one reason for the failure of the Automatic was the positioning of the spacebar behind the keys, a point of which he quotes Mares that this was “enough to kill the machine itself”.
Yet a Photographic World advertisement offers a free Automatic for 15 new subscriptions - in 1893, two years after the Automatic was said to have ended production. Shades of Godrej, India, circa 2011?
The World apparently insisted in April 1896 that the Automatic was “among thousands upon thousands [of typewriters] which have been entirely withdrawn from the market”, a claim to which Hamilton responded by telling the World he had “almost completed the perfection of another just such typewriter”.
It would appear, however, that improved Automatics, incorporating critical changes for which Hamilton was issued patents in 1890 and again in 1897 never went into production.
It was on this day in 1890 that Hamilton was issued with no fewer than SEVEN patents for improvements to the Automatic. There is no suggestion on any of these seven documents that Hamilton had assigned them to Henry Abbott.
Hamilton did assign one 1890 patent to Abbott, on March 25 of that year, but that for an “apparatus for recording measurements of time, space or quantity”. This design was, in 1902, to become Abbott’s famous Calculagraph. The images below from Brooke Clarke's website show the Abbott device on the left and something much closer to Hamilton’s original design on the right.
There is no doubt Abbott, a New York watchsmith, did work in tandem with Hamilton on various projects, including the Automatic. Abbott, for example, designed certain distinctive and prominent components of the Automatic, giving it its decorative look, as well as patenting aspects of the platen and inking pad, and also typebar tools. But most of his designs involved watch making, though he was the sole agent for the Automatic.
Hamilton was also a very versatile inventor. His first patent was issued in 1870 for a perspective diagram-sheet, then for an adding machine (1871), telegraphic receiving instrument, wire clamp and coupling and telegraph key and telegraph sounder (1883-88). This last design became the Victor key (below).
Regardless of Abbott’s input to the Automatic, Hamilton was extremely thorough with his designs, applying for five patents for the original Automatic, including one assigned to the Hamilton Type Writer Company. A later patent for improvements to his 1884-87 designs (in 1891) was assigned to the North American Machine Company of West Virginia.
Apart from his 1897 designs for a second round of improvements to the Automatic, Hamilton’s last patents were for piano-actions (1893-1900).
It’s the June 24, 1890, round of improvements for the Automatic that interest us here. The spacebar was still behind the keys, but Hamilton had worked out a way of typing in both upper and lower case on the narrow, faceted platen by rising the platen straight up. The escapement mechanism had moved behind the platen.
Hamilton went on, “The principal object of my invention is to reduce the distance necessary … between the typebar circle and the series of key-levers, and thus to lessen the height or equivalent dimension of the machine …” Reading this makes one wonder whether Hamilton was thinking, in aiming for further compactness, along the lines which in 1935 led Milan’s Giuseppe Prezioso to design to ultra-flat profile Hermes Featherweight, the first portable with front-mounted typebar mechanism (below).
By 1897, Hamilton had come up with a design which moved the spacebar to the normal front position, typebars swinging down to strike the top of the platen, and shift keys to move the carriage back and forward.
I am indebted here for images of the Automatic from Martin Howard’s and Anthony Casillo’s collections. The Automatic is an extremely rare machine, so images are equally uncommon.
Emery Manville Hamilton was born in Alfred, Allegany County, New York, on January 22, 1838, and died in Flushing, New York, in 1921, aged 83. He joined the US Army as a volunteer in 1861 and became a major in the 1st Regiment Engineers Corps d’Afrique. He was known as Major Hamilton throughout the rest of his life.
The Argentinean writer, painter and physicist Ernesto Sabato was born in Rojas, Buenos Aires province on this day in 1911. He died at Santos Lugares on April 30 this year, aged 99. Upon his death, El Pais dubbed him the “last classic writer in Argentine literature”.
These images of Sabato using his Ettore Sottsass-designed Olivetti Praxis 48 were taken in (and outside) his study in Santos Lugares in 1996.