James Hammond – journalist and genius

The first commercially successful mass–market typewriter was the machine invented by Christopher Sholes in 1873 which – with its Qwerty keyboard – dominated the typewriter industry for the next century as the Remington Typewriter. But, just as the PC had a long time competitor snapping at its heels in the Apple Mac, so the Remington had a similar rival in the idiosyncratic machine designed by an American journalist, James Bartlett Hammond (1839-1913).

Hammond had been a shorthand court reporter who had also covered the American Civil War, and is said to have conceived the idea for a printing machine after seeing his dispatches garbled by telegraph operators. During the 1870s, without any engineering training, he developed a typing machine that used a single printing element, a typewheel or shuttle (forerunner of the IBM Golfball) instead of a set of type bars.

It is probable that Hammond drew his inspiration from the machine called the Pterotype, invented by John Pratt, an American living in England, and based on a typewheel. A description of Pratt’s machine was published in Scientific American in 1867 and this article inspired many typewriter pioneers including Christopher Sholes and Lucien Crandall. Hammond was an astute businessman and offered Pratt a cash sum and royalty to stay out of the typewriter business, an offer that Pratt accepted. This effectively gave Hammond control of Pratt’s patent for the typewheel. Hammond’s first commercial machine appeared by 1884.

The Hammond machine was significantly smaller and lighter than the Remington simply because its typewheel design required far fewer parts.

By 1907 Hammond was so financially successful that the company opened a new, purpose-built typewriter factory in Manhattan, overlooking New York’s East River, close to the Brooklyn Bridge. The 50,000 square foot factory took up an entire block between 69th and 70th Streets and was celebrated in an art nouveau poster.

In 1913, James Hammond died and – to everyone’s astonishment — left all his estate to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. This included his 95 per cent shareholding in The Hammond Typewriter Company. There are no records of exactly when and how the Museum disposed of this legacy and what it did with the Hammond Company.

As a result, the history of the company over the next decade is less than clear.  What is known is that, from 1916, Hammond produced a replacement for its desk machine in the form of the Hammond Multiplex, a machine with two type shuttles that could be quickly alternated to change typefaces. At the same time that it introduced the Multiplex in 1916, Hammond also started to produce a version with an aluminium frame, in a carrying case, its first real attempt at portability.

During the First World War, the aluminium Multiplex was produced in a Khaki livery for use by the US Army. President Woodrow Wilson owned one of these machines, on which he typed his own letters, and which is still on display at the White House museum.

The company’s next significant development took place in 1921, when true portability finally came to the Hammond with the launch of the Hammond Folding Multiplex. The Folding Multiplex has all the advantages of the full size Hammond: visible typing, fewer working parts, and the ability to change typefaces at will. In addition it offered aluminium construction giving light weight and a folding keyboard providing compact size. All this was contained in a case only 12 by 9 by 8 inches. Here, at last, was the machine that James Hammond had originally envisaged; a portable printing machine that could be taken into the field by soldier or journalist and used anywhere to prepare printed reports in any one of 300 typefaces.

It’s difficult today to estimate just how financially successful the Folding Multiplex was. There seem to be quite a few surviving machines since many are sold on eBay each year suggesting a healthy original sales volume. But whether successful or not, in 1926 the Hammond Typewriter Company was sold by its shareholders to Frederick Hepburn Co. And by 1928, the company had moved from the old Hammond factory, across the Harlem River to a new address in the Bronx, at 132nd Street and Brook Avenue.

The new owners changed the company name to The VariTyper Company and at the same time, changed the name of its desk model Multiplex to the VariTyper. Although the company continued under its new owner to produce the re-named Multiplex and Folding Multiplex machines, it fell victim to the depression after the crash of 1929 and in 1932, the company filed for bankruptcy, making all its staff redundant.

Just a few blocks from the old Hammond factory, in the Woolworth Building, another office equipment entrepreneur had fared better. Ralph C Coxhead and his son had set up business around 1920, as the US distributor for the Mercedes mechanical calculating machines made by Christian Hamann of Berlin. Throughout the boom years of the 1920s. Coxhead had added other office machinery to his portfolio. Now, in 1933, he found sufficient financial backers to be able to buy up the patents and assets of the bankrupt VariTyper Company and make it the manufacturing arm of the Ralph C Coxhead Corporation. Coxhead re-hired many of the Hammond staff and re-started both manufacture and development.

By the mid-1930s, the Hammond machine’s days as an office or personal typewriter were virtually over. But Coxhead appears to have seen a new future for the VariTyper as what would later become known as a typesetting machine – a source of duplicator stencil masters and web offset litho printing masters which, unlike the Linotype and Monotype machines, did not rely on hot metal casting. To describe this new kind of type origination, Coxhead coined the term ‘cold typesetting’.

The VariTyper was well suited to this purpose because it had both a large library of hundreds of typefaces and also a facility for proportional spacing to accommodate their varying widths. To these, Coxhead added the ability to right-justify type (1937), variable letter spacing (1947), and variable line spacing (1953). He also introduced was what almost certainly the first one-time carbon ribbon (actually a large, thin reel of carbon paper) to give sharper images. Perhaps most important of all, he electrified the VariTyper to give consistent letter impressions.

The company flourished for two decades in its new incarnation, but Coxhead died in the early 1950s and soon after the company was sold to The Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation. The Coxhead VariTyper continued to be manufactured and sold as a typesetting machine until the 1970s (some reports even say 1980). It is a curious Frankenstein-like construction with its knobs and dials and extra long carriage to accommodate magazine and tabloid newspaper-sized pages. Yet underneath the later layers of complexity is the machine that James Hammond designed a century earlier, in 1880. The footprint is the same, the turret with its anvil and typeshuttles is identical. Even the idiosyncratic cylindrical paper holder is the same.

Probably the greatest testament to Hammond’s design is that the ‘type foundry’ his company designed (the name that typographers give to the company’s type catalogue) became a valuable asset in its own right as photo typesetting took off in the 1960s. As a result the VariTyper name continued in use in the 1970s to describe the early electronic typesetting system developed by AM VariTyper Corporation to supersede mechanical typesetters – the first generation of high-precision PostScript imagesetters. AM VariTyper was bought by Tegra Corporation in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, Tegra-VariTyper was in turn bought out by Pre-Press Solutions Inc. and still remains prominent in image-setting technology today.

There is a final irony in that Pre-Press Solutions is the name by which Monotype Corporation is today known. Thus, the company that coined the term ‘cold typesetting’, and whose founder dreamed of a portable printing machine, was ultimately taken over by the company whose name was synonymous with ‘hot metal’ typesetting.

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