Revolutionary Typewriter: Blickensderfer Typewriter
On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the Artifact of the Month for November is the Blickensderfer Typewriter #9, a unique kind of typewriter with a revolutionary design.
The typewriter on view at the museum came originally from Eph Mercers’ store in Vermont. The museum acquired a number of artifacts from the store after the death of Eph Mercer in 1976. The Mercer store in Vermont was famous because besides selling general merchandise, the owner displayed his own personal collection of widely assorted antiques all over the store. A number of other Artifacts of the Month have come from the Eph Mercer collection.
Invented by George C. Blickensderfer in 1893, the original Blickensderfer (no. 1) typewriter was portable, smaller, lighter and cheaper than any other typewriters being made at the turn of the century. It was introduced at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, along with the no. 5 model. Both models amazed the crowds. No other typewriters compared to the Blickensderfer and it was immediately popular with the public. No examples of the no. 1 exist today.
What made the Blickensderfer so popular was the inexpensive price. It sold for about $35.00, much less than most typewriters of the time. The typewriter was advertised as “Highest in Quality – Lowest in Price”.
Another noteworthy feature was the portability of the typewriter. The Blickensderfer no. 5 was the first truly portable typewriter with a keyboard. Compared to other brands, the Blickensderfer could be carried around much more easily. It was not as heavy or as bulky. Blickensderfer typewriter manual states under the heading, Portability:
“Any operator who has had occasion to move one of the old style cumbersome typewriters from place to place, can appreciate the immense advantage the Blickensderfer possesses in its light weight and convenient size. Authors, traveling salesmen and professional men who frequently desire to carry their machines when traveling find this to be the only one which can justly be called a portable machine. It weighs about six pounds and is packed in a handsomely polished case, the size of a small hand valise.”
One of the most distinctive features of the Blickensderfer was that instead of individual letter keys, the Blickensderfer featured a type wheel that could be removed to change the typeface. The type wheel was similar to later typeballs that were used in IBM Selectric typewriters. The Blickensderfer was about 50 years ahead of its time. With this feature, typists could change out the typewheel to type in a different font.
The most revolutionary aspect of the Blickensderfer was the keyboard layout. The bottom row contained the letters: DHIATENSOR. Blickensderfer referred to this as the “Scientific” keyboard. These were the most common letters used in the English language and the layout of the letters in the bottom row increased efficiency. With this layout, the letters most used were placed nearest the typist and letters that were combined frequently were placed close together. According to Blickensderfer, greater speed could be achieved and it was less tiring for the typist.
In the Blickensderfer manufacturer manual, the QWERTY style keyboard, which is commonly used today, was referred to as the Universal keyboard and was available only by special order. The museums’ typewriter has the QWERTY keyboard.
The machine’s popularity was also due to it being well made and engineered, and simply designed. It was made out of 250 parts as compared to most typewriters of the time that were made out of 2,500 parts. It was advertised that if used properly it could not be broken and with proper care, the life of the machine was almost indefinite. The Blickensderfer factory in Stamford, Connecticut manufactured thousands of typewriters and by 1896 it was producing some 10,000 machines per year, distributing them worldwide.
The export market was important for the Blickensderfer typewriter company from the very beginning. The machine was sold to England, Germany, France, New Zealand and Canada. One of the reasons it was so popular internationally was the interchangeable typewheel that was produced for many different languages, including Slovak, Armenian and Hebrew.
The number 9 model, on display at the museum, was one of the final model created by Blickensderfer and was made only between 1910 and 1917. George Blickensderfer died in 1917 and without his leadership the Blickensderfer company floundered and was bought out three years later.
From an essay by Heather Munro