History of Underwood Typewriters

The history of human commerce is filled with unique individuals who had a vision, who could see and apply the value of an invention. Like John Patterson, who recognized the enormous potential of the cash register, just such an entrepreneur was John T. Underwood, who developed the invention of Franz Wagner, German-American inventor. Underwood numbered each edition of his typewriter models, and No. 1 was made beginning 1895.

The No. 1 and No. 2 models had an imprint of Wagner Typewriter Co. on the back, but later models were known as Underwoods. A piece of machinery that was really breath-taking in its precision and intricate design, the Underwood may not have been the first typing machine on the market, but its place as the first reliable such machine is unquestioned. Those first models were not produced in great numbers; later models dominated the industry for many years.

 It is said that at the company’s height, as the world’s largest supplier of typewriters, the Connecticut Underwood factory was producing one machine per minute.

The Underwood family had started in business some 20 years before, supplying typewriter ribbons for Remington, manufacturer of the first commercially successful typing machines, starting in 1878. When Remington decided to manufacture its own ribbons, the Underwood Company turned to producing typing machines of its own. It was a most fortuitous business decision.

Almost four million Underwood No. 5 were made in the first decades of the 20th Century. Many of them exist today; more importantly, many of them are as effective as communication tools as they were in the beginning of their life.

The Underwood design perfected certain details of other typing machine designs of its time.

• For example, a straight type bar mechanism allowed the typist’s speed to increase, since the action was more direct. Bars held a single character and its capital, arranged in a semi-circle at the center of the machine. Other designs used a single element, such as a shuttle, ball, cylinder, or type wheel, calling for a shift between positions to produce different letters, an idea that came back into popularity when the IBM Selectric sped up the mechanism.

• In addition, the Underwood developed the front stroke mechanism, which, combined with the straight type bar for each letter, printed on the paper in front, so the typist could see it easily. The writing was “In Sight,” and seems logical to us. Older models, however, had arranged for the letters to type on the paper underneath the platen, so the typist had to lift it up and look, to see what had been typed.

• The QWERTY arrangement of letters had been in use for decades already, starting with the Sholes and Glidden typewriters, so the Underwood continued with the style.

• Underwood also used a four-tiered system of keys, with a single shift, which differed from other systems, many of which either full keyboard (a separate key for each character) or a three-bank, double shift system, where capitals and numerals depended on a shift. The Underwood system won out, since a single shift and separate keys for numerals made for greater speed and accuracy, qualities that were highly prized in typing machines and their operators.

• Another special feature of the Underwood was the inked ribbon that rolled past the strike point for each character. If the ribbon method was slightly blurrier than other models that used ink rollers or inkpad, it was also infinitely easier to care for, and lasted a long time.

• Other features of the No. 5 included a back spacer, a ribbon selector (two-tone ribbons allowed for two colors of typing, usually black and red), and a tab setter.

Unique methods of promotion led to the construction of a giant Underwood typewriter, correct in every detail, which appeared at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, at the Palace of Liberal Arts in San Francisco, California, in 1915. The gigantic machine (1728 times the size of a regular machine) weighed 28,000 pounds (14 tons) and the display included 16 attractive young women (presumably typists) apparently bent on office tasks, seated on the keys, each one round and big as a chair. A delicately colored picture postcard, available for purchase to exposition attendees, pictured this magnificent machine, complete with young women, along with the prophetic words "An Exact Reproduction of the Machine You Will Eventually Buy.” The giant Underwood was refurbished and put on display again at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Many of the classics of literature of modern times were composed on an Underwood. The traditional look of type on the page comes straight from Underwood, and the machine was a favorite of such writers as Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, as well as the lead character in “Murder, She Wrote,” Jessica Fletcher.