Single-element typewriters on display

by | Sep 8, 2023 | exhibit | 5 comments

In 2013 and 2014, I had opportunities to show some of my collection at the Xavier University Library and a public library. That brought good conversations (and an offer of a teletype). Now I’ve mounted another little show at the XU Library, focused on some machines in my collection that use interchangeable type elements. There are some bits of original and reproduction ephemera on display with the typewriters—including some material kindly given to me by Peter Weil back in the ’90s. 

Here’s the general introduction that I wrote up for the exhibit:

This selection from Dr. Polt’s extensive collection features writing machines with interchangeable type elements. By swapping one element for another, the typist could write in a different type style (font) or even a different alphabet. Type elements were available in a wide variety. They were typically made of vulcanite (hardened rubber) or aluminum. While most of these elements took the form of wheels, others were elongated cylinders, arcs, or other shapes. By around 1915, almost all type-element typewriters had been pushed out of the market by faster typewriters that used a separate typebar (or “hammer”) for each character, but could type in only one style. The IBM Selectric (1961) revived the concept of an interchangeable type element, using a golf-ball-like unit that traveled across the page. Electronic typewriters (introduced in the late 1970s and still manufactured today) generally use interchangeable daisywheels. The early typewriters you see here were mostly manufactured in the United States. They testify to the mechanical ingenuity of their creators, the interests and needs of their users, and the beauty that is possible in industrial design.

And now for the dozen typewriters:

Crandall New Model (ca. 1889)


The Crandall uses a vertical type cylinder whose motion is controlled by an ingeniously formed vulcanite “twirler” at the back of the machine. The curved two-row keyboard activates levers that run in grooves in the twirler to turn the type cylinder to the appropriate position. When new, this machine was a dazzling object, painted with gold pinstripes and adorned with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Inventor: Lucien S. Crandall.



Hammond no. 1 (ca. 1890)


The mechanism of this early typewriter is encased in wood. A two-row curved keyboard activates two wedge-shaped type elements that swing to the right or left. A hammer in the back of the machine hits the paper against the ribbon and the element. The Hammond is one of the longest-lasting typewriter designs. It was renamed Varityper in 1927. With many improvements, including electrification, proportional type (where, for instance, a W is wider than an i), and a mechanical method of justifying right margins, Varitypers were used to create camera-ready layout until the 1970s. Inventor: James B. Hammond.



Blickensderfer no. 5 (1902)


The most successful typewheel machine and the first truly portable typewriter, the “Blick” was invented in the mid-1890s and made until 1915. A three-bank keyboard with double shift controls an interchangeable vulcanite typewheel that is inked by a roller. Blickensderfer promoted “Scientific” alternatives to QWERTY, such as this keyboard designed to type Polish. The most common letters are at the center of the bottom row and require the least motion of the hands and the typewheel. Inventor: George C. Blickensderfer.



Lambert (ca. 1900)


A unique design, the Lambert arranges its keys in a circle. When the user depresses a key, the entire keyboard and the apparatus below it tilt and descend to print a character. The type is located on an interchangeable convex disc. Inventor: Frank Lambert.



Commercial Visible no. 6 (ca. 1900)


Made from 1898 to 1907, the Commercial Visible is an uncommonly elegant typewheel machine. Like the Hammond, it uses a hammer to hit the paper from behind against the ribbon and the type. The name “Visible” alludes to the fact that at the turn of the century, most large typewriters were “blind”: they typed on the bottom of the carriage, which had to be lifted up to see one’s work. With the Commercial Visible, the typing is immediately in sight. Inventor: Richard W. Uhlig. 


Postal no. 5 (1904)


A rival to the Blickensderfer, the Postal is a similar invention that uses a different system to translate key motion into the rotation of a typewheel. Inking is by ribbon. Inventor: William P. Quentell.



Blickensderfer no. 6 (1912)


Although Blickensderfer promoted its Scientific layout, it also offered typewriters with a QWERTY keyboard, such as this no. 6 made of lightweight aluminum. Also on display are two Blick typewheels that were 3D printed in 2022. Digital technology makes it possible to create new type elements for antique typewriters, with fonts that were never originally available for these machines.



Helios-Klimax (ca. 1919)


The Helios, later known as Helios-Klimax, is one of the few twentieth-century typewriters with a two-row keyboard. With a triple shift and a four-row aluminum typewheel, it can write as many characters as a machine with a normal keyboard, and its action is fast. The machine was manufactured in Berlin. This specimen has a Spanish keyboard. Inventor: Justin W. Bamberger.



Chicago (ca. 1915)


Originally known as the Munson, the Chicago was made from the 1890s to the 1910s. Its three-bank keyboard controls a horizontal type cylinder that is enveloped in a wide ribbon. Like the Hammond and the Commercial Visible, it hammers the paper from behind. Note the unusual position of the Q key. Inventor: Samuel J. Seifried.



Bennett (ca. 1910)


The Bennett is the smallest keyboard typewriter ever made. A cam system translates the downward movement of a key into the rotation and forward movement of a typewheel. This device was widely advertised as a pocket typewriter, and it does fit in a large coat pocket. Its original price was $18.00. Inventor: Charles A. Bennett.



Hammond Folding Multiplex (1923)


This descendant of the Hammond no. 1 is a portable typewriter with a keyboard that folds upwards. It can hold two arc-shaped type shuttles; the typist can switch from one style to another in seconds. The character spacing can be changed with a lever on the right side of the machine.



Tip Tip (1936)


Index typewriters are a low-cost category of writing machines that have no keyboard, and require two steps for printing: the user must indicate the desired character on an index, then perform a separate action to type it. The Tip Tip, made in Czechoslovakia, arranges its type on a cylinder. The user points at the character on the chart at right, and depresses the two keys at left for printing and spacing. A similar invention, the Mignon, sold well in Germany between the wars. Inventor: Franz Hübl.

Other single-element typewriters in my collection include a Moya 1 and 2, a Crandall 4, a Chicago 3, and of course, the IBM Selectric I. The antique single-element machines hold great charm for me as a collector, even though they’re not the most practical typewriters to use.


  1. Joe V

    Fantastic collection and display, thank you!

  2. Anonymous

    Speaking of interchangable shuttle machines – you happen to still have that VariTyper DSJ that you picked up in 2013? (:

  3. RobertG

    Neat theme, great exhibition – thank you for the virtual visit! :-D


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


typewriter revolutionary factory logo




Dept. of Philosophy
Xavier University
3800 Victory Pkwy.
Cincinnati, OH. 45207