Great Designers Remembered – George C Blickensderfer and the First Portable Typewriter

Recalling brilliant designers and their creations from the past.

George Canfield Blickensderfer (1850-1917) and the Blickensderfer No. 5       

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A memorable name for such a prolific inventor!  Born in Pennsylvania, USA, he moved to Stamford, Connecticut after his marriage. While working as a textile salesman to pay the bills he was constantly coming up with ideas in the workshop at the back of his house, including the electric passenger lift, which he patented in 1888. This period was a golden age of early technology, and the typewriter was just beginning to find a place in the office and home. Remington dominated the market, but these early machines were heavy, clumsy and expensive. The biggest problem was that almost all had the type-bars swinging up from below which meant that the typist could not see what was being typed, and the bars had a tendency to jam.

Blickensderfer set out to improve the fundamental design of the typewriter and developed the idea of a round ‘type wheel’ or small drum, instead of type-bars. It had three rows of characters for lower case, upper case, and symbols. By just pressing a key users could easily switch between the rows. The wheel could also be removed and replaced with others with dozens of different languages and symbols. This was seventy years before IBM came up with a similar idea with the Selectric typewriter in 1961 with its interchangeable ‘golfball’ typehead. The type wheel design instantly solved the problem of keys jamming as there weren’t any, and you could see what you were typing!

The first Blickensderfer typewriter using this idea was patented in 1891, and launched at the 1893 Chicago Fair at a price of $100, which competed with the better quality machines of the time, although far more advanced and sophisticated. He also hedged his bets by exhibiting a simpler but less conventional machine at a much lower price of $35 (equivalent to around £600 today). This machine, the Blickensderfer No. 5, had only 250 or so parts, compared with the 2,500 of a typical office machine. It was an instant success at the Fair, and the huge amount of advance orders enabled Blickensderfer to expand his factory in Stamford. Over 74,000 of this model were eventually produced over the next two decades.

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The type wheel is used with an ink roller, rather than the usual ribbon. So when you press a key the type wheel revolves to the chosen character via levers and gears and descends to hit the paper, rubbing against the ink roller on the way.

You can also see that the keyboard has an unusual configuration of letters, not the QWERTY layout invented at the same time as the original pioneer typewriter, the Sholes & Glidden, to prevent the type-bars from jamming. Because the No. 5 does not have type-bars there was no need for this layout and GCB completely re-thought the typing process and came up with his DHIATENSOR ‘Scientific’ keyboard layout, which groups all the most commonly used keys together. There was some resistance to this from buyers and he eventually gave in and offered the QWERTY layout as an option.

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The machine is tiny, only around 280mm wide and weighing under 3kg. Available with a wooden carrying case it was the world’s first portable typewriter and, I would argue, the very first personal communications device which could easily be carried around (not counting the fountain pen!). Early publicity shows the ‘Blick’ being taken on an outing to the local woods (although why you would want to type there is not made clear!).

As well as in the home ‘Blicks’ were used extensively by journalists, travelling salesmen, and the military. Here is a great period ad. showing a later model in use in ‘Foreign Parts’ by a Reuters correspondent.

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The genius of the design lay not only in the revolutionary typing system, but in the way the chassis, the heaviest part of the machine, was made as small as possible (in cast iron at first) with the keys and carriage projecting from it, giving it a delightful spidery appearance. Other space and weight saving devices included the aluminium space-bar which folds up to fit into the case. The bell doubles up as the right hand platen (roller) knob, and the paper support is removable. The body is so small that the maker’s plate assumes a greater significance than usual having a big effect on the appearance, and GCB did not skimp on the design as you can see below.

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The original design was so good that there was little significant change during its production life except that in 1901 an aluminium No. 5 was produced weighing under 2.5 kg  (one of the first uses of aluminium in mass production), with one later version called the ‘Featherweight’ (below). A deluxe model, No. 7, with a smart oak case and wrap around space bar was made from 1897, but this and the following versions of it never had quite the same minimalist appeal.

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French versions of the No. 5 and No. 7 were assembled for a short time under licence in the late 1890s under the name of Dactyle, with the evocative Art Nouveau nameplate changing the character of this American machine to suit fin du siècle Paris.

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Blickensderfer died in 1917 (as a result of overwork, so it was said) and the business, already in decline because of the war and increased competition from more conventional portables, closed in 1919 after nearly 200,000 ‘Blicks’ had been made. Various attempts were made to resurrect the company, and in 1928 Remington re-introduced the No. 5 for a few years as their own brand of portable, giving the 1893 design a production life of nearly 40 years!

Not only had Blickensderfer invented the first portable typewriter and pioneered the use of mass-produced aluminium, he also invented and produced the first electric typewriter as early as 1901! It was not a great success as it was too far ahead of its time, particularly as the electricity supply was often unreliable and sometimes only on at night.

A genius, brilliant inventor and designer, George C Blickensderfer deserves to be better known, and at least one of his masterpieces, the beautiful little Blickensderfer No. 5, should be in design museums alongside the Olivetti Lettera 22 and Valentine. It was far more significant than both of these famous portables.

The Blicks are from a private collection. The only book about GCB and his creations is ‘The Five Pound Secretary’ by Rob Blickensderfer (a relation, obviously!) and Paul Robert. It is a mine of useful information, and a great source for this post. The book is available from the Virtual Typewriter Museum, run by Paul Robert, a fascinating site for typewriter and design enthusiasts.

http://www.typewritermuseum.org/lib/library_bookshop_blick.html

More information about GCB and the factory is on the Stamford Historical Society website, also an invaluable source for the post (photograph of GCB in the 1890s courtesy of the Society’s web page):

http://www.stamfordhistory.org/blickens.htm

A good summary of the history of Blickensderfer is at:

http://www.portabletypewriters.co.uk/portable_typewriters_blickensderfer.htm

A good detailed bio of GCB on an Erie, Pennsylvania Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.614840275222969.1073741874.268770283163305&type=3

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2 Responses to Great Designers Remembered – George C Blickensderfer and the First Portable Typewriter

  1. Jos Legrand says:

    Dear madam or sir, could you introduce me to the owner of the Blickensderfer Featherweight that you pictured in your blog ?

    Like

  2. Hello, it is from my collection. My email is opinionated.designer@gmail.com

    Like

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