As many of you know, June 23rd is World Typewriter Day. This is a day in which we celebrate those weighty machines which give us great joy by clicking, clacking, and “ding!”ing. It’s a day to swap out old typewriter ribbons for new ones and oil our carriage levers!
(above message reads: “What do you think of this machine? It is in operation every day. –Al)
Let’s take a step back and look at a larger picture: this year is also the 100 year anniversary of San Francisco’s Pan Pacific International Expo (PPIE, for short.) In 1915, the Expo was a wonderment to behold — San Francisco’s first big “event” after the devastation of 1906’s earthquake and fire. Countries from around the globe (as well as states across the US) sent emissaries, exhibits, and artwork of their best and brightest. Practically speaking, the PPIE commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal and celebrated SF’s phoenix-like rebuilding of the city.
I have always been fascinated with the PPIE; in the San Francisco of today, you can still find remnants of the Expo – if you look carefully. The Palace of Fine Arts still stands, but there are also many hidden bits (artwork and architecture) tucked away around the bay area.
(typed message reads: “Westward Ho! Over the Rockies we go: on our way to the Golden Gate we will see deserts, prairies,cowboys, ranches, mountains, canyons, and the wonders of the west; the Orient, the Occident, the South Seas, the Arctic — all the world will be there. Meet us in the Palace of Liberal Arts, Court of the Universe, San Francisco.”)
But there’s one mystery that I’ve been working to solve, something that no one ever seems to discuss. It’s a question of the massive Underwood typewriter, which was shown with much fanfare at the PPIE.
“Writing daily at the Underwood exhibit”, the Underwood Typewriter Company debuted an enormous 14 ton typewriter at the Expo’s Palace of Liberal Arts. At twenty one feet wide and 18 feet high, this particular Underwood was a feat of engineering. A grown adult could sit on one of its keys; photos from the Expo show attendees dwarfed by the gigantic contraption. Plans for the giant machine took a full year to develop; it was another year before the behemoth was constructed.
(typed message reads: “Bulletin by United Press: Liverpool, May 7th — the Cunard liner Lusitania with a heavy passenger list of Americans, was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast this afternoon. Small boats rushed from Queenstown to Old Head of Kinsale off which point the liner was torpedoed.”)
Daily news headlines were typed out on a nine-by-twelve-foot piece of paper; the typewriter itself required a 100-foot-long ribbon. “Printer’s Ink” magazine (Volume 91, April 1st, 1915) tells us that “it is run by power generated by three single one horse-power motors.” A regular sized Underwood in front of the larger showpiece was used in the typing of daily newsworthy headlines. A breaking news feature on May 7th, 1915, announced to fair-goers the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines (as seen in the photo above.)
So here’s the mystery: a 14 ton typewriter with keys the size of car tires and taller than an adult elephant – where does something like that end up? I’ve long wondered. That’s the beauty of the internet: if you search diligently, you can usually piece together clues.
After the PPIE wrapped up on December 4th, 1915, many of the Expo’s artifacts were sold at public auction. Parts of buildings were floated downriver to other bay area cities; artwork and furniture found their way into private collections. The Underwood Typewriter Company sold their 14 ton, award-winning typewriter to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. Taken apart and loaded into two boxcars, the colossal machine traveled from one side of the country to the other.
The excellent oz Typewriter blog has a first-rate write up of Jack Dempsey’s (that’s right – the boxer!) connection with the enormous typer, once it arrived in Atlantic City. As far as I can tell (via internet sleuthing), the Underwood resided in Atlantic City for twenty-or-so years. (Internet) Rumor has it that hired dancers pranced across the keys, typing out messages for onlookers.
In 1939, the World’s Fair opened in NYC. It seems that Underwood’s typer found a new home in the “Business Systems and Insurance Building” – a far cry from its glory days at the PPIE. Bill Cotter, in his book “The 1939-1940 World’s Fair” (Arcadia Press) states that “the exhibits inside were unlikely to attract many repeat visitors for they consisted of displays on banking, life insurance companies, calculators, safes, and other office equipment. The most popular displays were a 14 ton typewriter, the largest in the world, and IBM’s Gallery of Art and Science.”
(typed message reads: “Hey Folks: Welcome to the World’s Fair of 1940 in New York. –Henry D. Gibso… –> the young lady in photo has her foot at the ready, hovering above the letter “N”.)
At this point in my searching, the trail of the 14 ton typer goes cold. I’ve found vague references to World War II and implications that the Underwood Master Typewriter was sold to the US Army for scrap metal. Is this really truly what happened? Is there any way to ever possibly know?
With all of our collective (internet) knowledge, I have no doubt that the “Whereabouts of the 14 Ton Typewriter” will one day be solved — beyond a question of a doubt. For now, I’ll keep hoping for the day that mankind manages to perfect time travel. Then I’ll be able to find my way among the promenades and pathways of 1915’s PPIE, heading towards the Palace of Liberal Arts and a typewriter that dreams are made of.
Some great resources in relation to this write up:
KQED’s “Forum With Michael Krasney” – an interview with PPIE historians and author Laura Ackerly (Jewel City, published by Heyday Books)
Excellent photos of the Underwood exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair (blog: History by Zim)
Learn interesting facts and unusual aspects related to typewriters! oz Typewriter (blog)