Our exhibit is more and more crowded every day, and business is brisk. All the other typewriter exhibitors close earlier than we do, for our machines seem to attract most of the interest now, I must tell you, our competitors don’t like it a bit.
I started writing very fast on my typewriter and was not looking at the keys. A gentleman was watching me very intently and seemed astonished by my dexterity. In fact, the whole demonstration amazed him. He came all the way from the Argentine Republic, just for the Exposition, and I got the distinct impression that they don’t have typewriters in his country!
– Letters written to her parents from the World’s Fair by May Estella Munson, 1st August & 13th August, 1893
A laptop, iPad or smart phone is indispensable to most of us in the 21st century, and we may think that the concept of a mobile communication device is new. But, although the components are modern inventions, their predecessors were similar personal items that helped expression and communication of ideas. The first examples were wooden ‘writing boxes’ and ‘writing slopes.’ Portable boxes for writing materials existed for many centuries, but the ‘lap desk’ was a common possession of the upper classes in Europe by the end of the 18th century onwards. This ‘writing box’ was a hinged box, usually of mahogany or walnut, with compartments for inkwells, pens and sealing wax. The popularity of traveling and the onset of the Napoleonic wars increased their popularity, and military officers in the field would have their own boxes for army business as well as writing letters home.
The first commercially successful typewriter was invented in 1868, and by the 1890s Remington was the market leader in typewriter sales. The world’s first successful portable typewriter was the Blickensderfer, its first pattern being designed and patented in 1891 (Patent no 457333). What became the ‘Model No 5’ was patented on 12th April, 1892, and made its debut at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (The first World’s Fair). George Blickensderfer was a budding entrepreneur so could only afford a small space in the World’s Fair ‘Technology Halls.’ As 300 typewriter manufacturers had exhibits here, the name of these buildings was soon changed to ‘The Typewriter Halls.’ The small Blickensderfer display was dwarfed by the neighbouring Remington exhibition. However, George Blickensderfer had hired seventeen year old typist May Estella Munson, to demonstrate his machine. When she wrote letters home to her parents at well over 60 words per minute – extraordinary for its time – the 5.5lb portable Blickensderfer attracted huge crowds and became the star of the show.
It was the first pattern (Model No 1) which had been demonstrated at the World’s fair; the Model No 5 was also on display, as a stripped-down budget version. But it was this more economical lightweight machine that caught the public imagination, and when the Model No 5 went on sale in 1895 it soon became the world’s best-selling portable typewriter, with tens of thousands manufactured. Instead of the conventional mechanism with letters on the end of individual bars, it is fitted with a cylindrical wheel embossed with the letters. When you press a key the cylinder turns so the correct letter is positioned over the paper; it is inked by a roller as it moves to press down on the paper. (The ‘revolutionary’ IBM Selectric, introduced in 1961, used an identical principle). A major advantage with this system is that you can change the typeface by changing the type cylinder; German and French variations were introduced at the same time.
The Blickensderfer dramatically reduced the complexity of a typewriter’s design: instead of 2,500 parts in a standard machine, it used only 250. Although a QWERTY keyboard was available on request, the standard layout is the DHIATENSOR keyboard, designed so that a typist could keep their hands on the home row as much as possible for maximum typing efficiency. The other advantage of the Blickensderfer is that it did not ‘hang up’ with jammed keys – the QWERTY keyboard of other typewriters had actually been adopted to slow down the typist in order to avoid jamming.
Two British branches of the American company were established in 1894-95, one at 9-10 Cheapside, London, and the other in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. World war 1 seriously affected the American company’s large export markets, so George C Blickensderfer invented a belt-loading device for machine guns and received enough orders from the French government to keep the company solvent.
To quote the 1897 catalogue from Blickensderfer Typewriter Co, Newcastle-on-Tyne; August, 1897:
The portable Typewriter, par excellence, is the ‘Blick,’ a full keyboard machine that… does not require a porter and barrow to transfer it from place to place.
1901 Sunbeam Gent’s ‘Design OK’
Frame No 46303
With Back-pedal Band Brake
Seabrook Revolving Double Dome Chime Bell
N.A.B. Spring Saddle Pillar
1896 Blickensderfer ‘Model No 5’ Typewriter
Serial No 12194
Working for The Times, Lionel James was one of the leading war correspondents of the Boer War. He had used his Blickensderfer portable typewriter while reporting on the war in Sudan in 1898, and took it to South Africa too. There are no written reports of his use of a bicycle, but as he was renowned for experimenting with a range of new equipment to assist his war reports, it is likely that he would have tried out a bicycle too. This Blickensderfer typewriter is fitted to a 1901 Sunbeam.
BLICKENSDERFER: THE WAR CORRESPONDENT’S BEST FRIEND
The best of the correspondents was Lionel James. A professional newsman, trained by Reuters, he also became a good letter writer, a skill which he attributed to the help of his siege companion at Ladysmith, Maxwell of the Standard. he had ‘the gift of cadging for information without loss of dignity arising from a natural easiness in the company of army officers.’ Despite siege conditions he succeeded in getting almost all his telegrams and letters out by runners and, unlike other correspondents, he did not have a day’s sickness during the siege. He left Ladysmith as soon as he could to join Lord Roberts, accompanying him all the way to Pretoria. He returned to England in the summer of 1900 for a few months, expecting to be sent to China, but he was back in South Africa by the beginning of 1901 and stayed until the autumn. His views on military and political affairs in South Africa were to become increasingly important as the war proceeded. On his return to South Africa in 1901 he coordinated the reports of stringers on the war and reported on any other matters which interested the public at home. It was partly on the basis of his reports that the Times took its unyielding stance on the concentration camps.
– ‘The South African War Reappraised’ by Donal Lowry, page 72
Colonel Lionel James was one of many foreign correspondents covering the Boer war, joining The Times in 1899. His excellent and rare account of the war ‘On the Heels of de Wet’ was written anonymously as ‘The Intelligence Officer.’
Though exact data is not available, between 200 and 300 individuals were involved in news-gathering in South Africa during the Boer War. Afrikaans-language newspapers were pro-Boer. Dutch, French, German and American correspondents also reported for the international press for the Boer side, while many South African English-language newspaper reporters became stringers or correspondents for English newspapers and Reuters. In the book ‘The Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image’ John Gooch reports that:
The first of the British special correspondents started to arrive before the war began: Lionel james travelling to Cape Town in September on the same ship as Sir George White, and the last of them including Churchill accompanying Buller in October. Burleigh, Steevens, Nevinson and Hugh Pearse of the Daily News all followed White to Ladysmith. There they joined other reporters, including Sidney Goldman. Bad weather and found conditions made even heliograph communication impractical, but a few reports were smuggled out by Africans …The siege was loosely enough maintained for an American employee of Reuters, J.E Pearson, to slip into the town and out again with Stent’s report, while Hamilton was even briefly captured in a Boer attack and recaptured by the British.
…Among the notable correspondents joining Burleigh in reporting on Buller’s forces in the Natal theatre were Aubron Herbert (The Times) – who in turn lost a leg from gunfire; Churchill of the Morning Post, sharing a tent and a friendship with Atkins of the Manchester Guardian; and Richard Harding Davis reporting for both the New York Herald and Harmsworth’s Daily Mail. Amery also worked with both Lionel James in Natal and Percival Landon in the west between October and December 1899, as well as visiting Kimberley, Bloemfontein and Pretoria in turn after their capture. In a famous exploit, Churchill was captured by a Boer raiding party while travelling with an armoured train on 15th November. Escaping from the State Model Schools prison in Pretoria to Portuguese East Africa in December, he rejoined Buller’s forces in Natal the following month.
Lionel James is credited with using various innovations to assist his reporting. He used carrier pigeons during the Siege of Ladysmith (2nd November, 1899 – 28th February 1900), but a crate of pigeons sent to James was intercepted by the Boers – who ate them, and then sent James a message thanking the Times correspondent for a ‘basket of nice fat pigeons.’
He used a Blickensderfer typewriter to cover the Siege of Ladysmith. It was the same machine he’d used for reporting during the Omdurman Campaign (in Sudan in 1898). He wrote to Blickensderfer Mfg Co on 4th January 1901, agreeing to give them this typewriter in exchange for a new one and describing the Blickensderfer as ‘the War Correspondent’s best friend.’
Colonel James was renowned for his bravery. In order to dash with the good news to a telegraph office after the relief force arrived at Ladysmith, James, accompanied by his courier, Adin Coates, and a local guide, left under the cover of darkness on a perilous trek which entailed feeling their way and leading their horses as quietly as possible, for although the investing ring had been pierced Boer snipers still occupied their original positions. Having arrived at Pieter’s Hill, where Sir Redvers Buller had his headquarters, he was able to have the news cabled to England in time for it on the following day (Saturday) to appear only in The Times and The Standard.
James was also credited with introducing wireless to cover the Sino-Russian war in 1904. Gavin Weightman’s book ‘Signor Marconi’s Magic Box’ reports:
Late in December 1903 the White Star Line’s ‘Majestic’ which had been refitted after serving as a troopship in the Boer War, eased out of Loverpool docks en route for New York. Among the first class passengers were the two men who regarded themselves as the foremost exponents of wireless telegraphy in the United States, Professor Reginald Fessenden and Lee de Forest. They were not on speaking terms, as Fessenden was suing de Forest for infringement of his patent not he new electronic detector, or barreter. Both were returning home after exploring the possibility of establishing the wire system in Britain. Fessenden had been looking for a site to set up a station for his transatlantic venture, while de Forest had been taking part in a competitive demonstration of wireless for the General Post Office. Neither man was in a very happy mood: Fessenden was being offered a remote site in Scotland by the Post Office, and de Forest felt he had been rejected by British ‘hauteur’ as he had received no orders for his equipment.
However, de Forest’s mood changed when he met aboard ship a British war correspondent, Captain Lionel James, who was on the first leg of a joinery out to the Far East, where war was brewing between Russia and Japan over disputed territories in Manchuria and Korea. Captain James was a classic product of the British Raj, a former tea-planter and racehorse-owner. Four years earlier he had taken a gamble by offering himself as a special war correspondent for The Times. He had reported on the Boer War and had been with General Kitchener in the Sudan, where he had made a name for himself as a front-line trooper in the world’s press corps.
Though both de Forest and James like to claim credit for having the idea of using wireless to report the Russo-Japanese War, it is most likely the plot was hatched by chance on the Majestic when the two met and fell into conversation. …On the voyage it was agreed that if James could persuade The Times to put up the money, de Forest would provide wireless equipment and engineers to establish a station somewhere on the China coast. James anticipated that if war broke out much of the naval action would take place in the Yellow Sea, which is enclosed by the coastlines of Manchuria, Korea and China. To the north was the Russian naval base of Port Arthur. If he could charter a reasonably swift steamer and get permission from the Japanese navy to cruise among its ships, there was a good chance that with de Forest’s wireless equipment he could beat by hours – even days – his fellow correspondents, who would have to find cable stations from which to send their reports.
James managed to get £1000 from The Times and, with some difficulty, de Forest managed to retrieve his equipment from Ireland and find volunteers to transport it to the war zone and set it up. James settled on the British naval base of Wei-hai-Wei as a suitable location for the wireless station, and his assistant Fraser, a junior reporter, managed to rig up the transmitter on a ship’s mast, using the labour of fifty Chinese labourers and one hundred and fifty naval ratings. James. meanwhile, chartered a steamer called the ‘Haimun’ and despite protests from other war correspondents when they found out what he was up to – via the British Minister in Tokyo, who warned that steaming among Japanese battleships would be a flagrant breach of neutrality – James managed to come to an agreement with the Minister of State for the Japanese navy.
THE BLICKENSDERFER TYPEWRITER
The Mauser C96 ‘Broomhandle’ Semi-Automatic Pistol, pictured above next to the Blickensderfer, was much favoured by the Boer Kommando; it was particularly useful for shooting from the saddle at point blank range during full gallop charges. However it was in short supply. The British did not generally use it, but Winston Churchill always carried one.
Info on May Estella Munson + Blick photos + Lionel James pictures and letter thanks to Robert Messenger’s excellent ‘Australian Typewriter Museum’ website –
Transcript of ‘On the Heels of de Wet’ by Lionel James – http://www.richmondkaroo.com/main/page_richmond_on_the_heels_of_de_wet.html
‘The Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image’ –