New Year's Typewriters

By Robert Messenger


In December 1899, the Blickensderfer Typewriter Company of Stamford, Connecticut, famously produced a full-age advertisement for Munsey’s Magazine which showed Father Time pulling back the millennium curtain to reveal the futuristic Blick 7 portable (with an automatic spacer) as being a gift from the 19th to the 20th Century.

The Blickensderfer company did indeed continue beyond that point to set standards in portable typewriter design – at least until 1917, when its founder, George Canfield Blickensderfer died, aged 66, and his organisation began to collapse. The Stamford Advocate said in its obituary, “Mr Blickensderfer's intense thought on his later inventions resulted in injury to his nervous system, which possibly hastened the end.”

Blickensderfer’s New Year’s theme of a new model typewriter being given by one personified year (an old man, sometimes carrying a scythe) to the next (usually a near-naked child) had been used previously – by Remington in 1897-98 and by Smith Premier in 1898-99.

Of the American typewriter manufacturers which proliferated in the late 19th Century, not all made it into the 20th. Some, such as Densmore and Yōst, had been gobbled by the trust, the Union Typewriter Company, and on January 27, 1903, Smith Premier resigned from the trust to be reformed a L.C. Smith & Brothers, later to merge with Corona. Remington and Underwood remained the major typewriter makers, and were joined at the head of the pack by Royal in 1904. Underwood was taken over by Olivetti in 1959. Royal, which re-emerged in the US more than a century later, in September 2004, is the only one of this “big four” to survive as a typewriter distributor (if not manufacturer) into the 21st Century – Smith-Corona is now a maker of thermal labels and ribbons used in warehouses for primarily barcode labels.

One Royal portable which was receiving a pounding around the New Year period in 1957 was the gold-plated machine owned by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels (this typewriter was in 1993 won at auction by James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, who paid almost $100,000 for it).

Three days after Christmas 1956, Fleming used the Royal to write to his publisher, George Wren “Bob” Howard at Jonathan Cape, complaining that, while the typewriter was firing and he had a new ribbon and 200 pages of blank foolscap paper, Fleming’s own “vein of inventiveness is running extremely dry”. Fleming said he was finding it increasingly difficult to “work up enthusiasm for Bond and his unlikely adventures”. Fleming had written From Russia, With Love earlier in 1956, but was still going through revisions.

However, the gold-plated Royal continued to pump out good copy at Fleming’s Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, and in early 1957 Fleming completed Dr No (as well as a much lesser known non-fiction work, The Diamond Smugglers). Dr No was the first of Fleming’s Bond books to be turned into a film, the script for which Fleming worked on using a Triumph portable at Oracabessa.

Happily for Bond fans, the reception for For Russia, With Love had helped oil the grindstone for Fleming. He went on, in his own words, finding “new names and shapes for heroines, and new ways to chase and kill people”. And as he did so, his Royal gold-plated portable typewriter needed no oiling at all!