The Man Who Loves Typewriters

Editor’s Note: You never know where or when the antiques and collectibles bug will grab you. In the case of Martin Howard, it was in a dusty junk shop when he was captivated by an antique typewriter almost 20 years ago.

The rule in Martin Howard’s house is that he must keep his antique typewriters in his office—the environment for which they were designed and where they belong.

But on the road? Howard’s wife didn’t expect that she would share her honeymoon with a century-old classic—a Williams 2. He found it at a flea market in New York City, and well . . . he just had to buy it.

“OK,” she sighed, “but we aren’t going back to the hotel.”

“It may have been the first time that a 100-year-old typewriter has visited the top of the Empire State Building,” Howard recalled. “My arms were quite stiff after having waited in line for two hours carrying a 25-pound machine.”

Martin Howard with some of his typewriter treasures (Photo by Martin Howard)

Howard, 49, was born in England and now lives with his wife and daughter in Toronto. He started collecting the world’s first typewriters in 1989 when he spied an 1882 Caligraph 2 on a dusty junk-shop shelf. He purchased it for $100.

There are more than 100 serious typewriter collectors in North America and Europe. Howard has dozens of the rarest and earliest typing machines, 20 of which have been exhibited by the Royal Ontario Museum and other galleries. He also maintains one of the most extensive Web sites on the subject, Antique Typewriters.

Howard didn’t set out looking specifically for typewriters. He wanted a category of 19th-century machinery that would complement his father’s interest in collecting antique mechanical objects such as butter churns, seeders and medical tools, as well as the restored carriages and sleighs that dotted their yard.

Once he spotted the Caligraph 2, he knew he had found his niche.

Now his appreciation for their mechanical artistry and ingenuity deepens as e-mailing, texting and networking expands.

American 2—Index

American Typewriter Co., New York 1893: This example was sold by the Lyon Manufacturing Co. of Toronto. It typed from a rubber strip mounted onto the swinging sector. Inking was by two small felt rollers. This typewriter originally sold for $5.

“Part of the magic of these early typewriters is that they are so far away and yet so close,” Howard said. “There is an incredible nostalgia for the typewriter, with an intellectual and emotional investment in it as the symbol of writing.”

Howard also restores antique typewriters. He has spent hundreds of hours working on a single machine, dismantling every part to remove dirt, old oil and rust.

“It takes a lot of patience,” he said, “but the pleasures of exploring the mechanisms of a hundred-year-old typewriter, and the end result — a beautiful, smoothly operating artifact — is well worth it.”

Blickensderfer 5—Creelman

The Blickensderfer Mfg. Co. Stamford, Conn., 1893, Serial #35484. This example was sold by the Creelman Bros. Typewriter Co., Georgetown, Ontario, one of the first typewriter shops in Canada. The cylindrical type element was interchangeable, allowing for numerous font styles. Foreign language alphabets were available. Inking is done by a small roller on a spring-loaded arm positioned under the cylindrical type wheel. This typewriter sold for $40.

Howard pursues the first typewriters from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The early machines cost $30 to $100, which was as much a horse-drawn carriage. (Imagine today spending the same for a laptop computer as you would on a car!)

There were more than 300 designs that reflected experimentation by gunsmiths, watchmakers and sewing-machine engineers. Designs and nameplates were coming and going in a matter of a couple of years or even months.

Long-forgotten brands include Crandall, Densmore and Odell. Many used keyboards, but others employed an index wheel, a dial similar to a telephone and even a handle that “cut” letters.

The modern QWERTY keyboard (so named because of the position of the first six letters along the top left of the keyboard) actually appeared on the first typewriter produced by Remington in 1874. Letters were not placed alphabetically in an effort to keep adjacent type bars from hitting each other while typing.

Odell 2

Odell Typewriter Co., Chicago, 1890. This machine is nickel plated and has a beautiful Art Nouveau style. To type, one moves the handle (currently pointing to the letter O) to the desired character and pushes down. The carriage moves perpendicular to the handle movement. Model 2 types in both capitals and small letters. (The shift button is currently just below the letter E.) This typewriter became very popular due to its beauty and great price. Models one through five were manufactured. By around 1906, all production had ceased for the Odell. This typewriter originally sold for $20.

Today, Howard tracks down his typewriters through word of mouth and shows. Their price, like most collectibles, is determined by three factors—rarity, condition and desirability. A pre-1905 machine can command more than $1,000.

Howard believes their value and fascination persists because the QWERTY keyboard provides all of us with a tangible link to typewriters of the past.

“Fundamentally, the process of using our hands to pass our thoughts from our minds to the outside world has not changed,” Howard says. “If our hands are no longer used to create the written word on a machine, typewriters will lose their connection with people and become a curiosity, like so many other old objects.”

Some of Howard’s most important typewriters include:

• Hall—First index typewriter (no keyboard), the world’s first portable, 1881
• Hammonia—First European typewriter, Hamburg, Germany, 1884
• Columbia—The first “diamond” in his collection and one of the few early typewriters to use proportional spacing, 1884
• Crandall—First typewriter with a single-type element, 1886
• Victor—First typewriter to use a “Daisy Wheel,” 1889

Crandall, New Model

a detail show of the Crandall, New Model

Crandall Machine Co., Croton, N.Y. 1886, Serial #6059. The Crandall was the first typewriter to print from a single element or “type sleeve,” well before IBM’s “Golf ball.” This type sleeve is a cylinder, about the size of your finger, that rotates and rises up one or two positions before striking the roller, achieving 84 characters with only 28 keys. The machine has a wonderful Victorian design and is decorated with hand-painted roses, accented with inlaid mother-of-pearl. This typewriter sold for $50 to $75. There’s a closeup of the flowers on the right.

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