I stood by the roadside on a warm autumn morning with a pocket full of cash, and a racing heart. I felt this deal would fall apart at any second, and I wasn’t sure if it was him – or me that was going to break it.
A man in a well loved, but battered old truck turned onto the road heading my direction. I waved. He pulled to a stop and energetically jumped out of the driver’s seat. He then picked up a typewriter by the handle on the top of its case, placed it on the ground and presented it to me with a smile – a very big smile that told me he thought he was getting the better side of the deal.
To be fair – the amount of money I pulled out of my pocked would be painfully excessive were I buying a dusty and aged Royal 10 typewriter. As he smiled with that ‘sucker’ tone, I stood there wracked with conflicting emotions of excitement and guilt. Had he just done a simple online search he may have not have offered this machine to me at the price he did. Surely the speed which I accepted the price should have been a hint.
Minutes later I had in my office at work a North’s Typewriter.
Back to 2012.
It is a typewriter that had stuck in my memory.
I had only been collecting typewriters for about a year and had a modest stable of 5 machines in my home in Brisbane, Australia. Daily I would pop onto the Typosphere page and read the blog-roll and latest news, and excitedly one day there was a post that caught my imagination. It’s not often items from Australia popped onto the main page, but an article Posted by Michael Clemens about a ‘rare typewriter’ found in Tasmania, with an estimated value of ‘up to $10,000’ was engaging.
Wow! I thought. My imagination clicked with the idea of highly unlikely possibility of me ever discovering another machine like this. “I think I need to visit Tassie REALLY soon” I joked in the comments. Surely only one of these machines would turn up in Australia. But maybe… maybe… What would happen if I just discovered one by accident hiding in someone’s cupboard?
Nah. Never going to happen. But you can only dream, right?
The Highly Unlikely Typewriter In The Ceiling.
The photos were all sideways and a little blurry. Photography and uploading just wasn’t this guy’s thing. On the dirt of his yard sat a typewriter that looked mostly like every other typewriter – except its distinctive crown of type bars.
Antiques aren’t this his usual product line. By trade he’s a demolition man who specialises in pulling down houses and clearing land. Selling used tiles and bricks are his bread and butter, but on the side he sells some of the items left behind in the houses that he’s contracted by developers to rip down. For $3000 he offered a piano. For a few dollars more you could buy a car port, all sitting on the ground in his demo yard.
He’d cleared a house out and started working to carefully strip the outside of this house. As he peeled open the roof while pulling down the tiles, Demolition Man spied some odd items that had been tucked away in the ceiling of the house. An unusual brown box stood out, which he pulled down and plopped into the back of his truck to look at when he got back to his yard.
There he opened the case, saw it was a typewriter and put it up online. I just happened to spy it 20 minutes later and almost fell out of my bed. I offered him a sum of money that knew was absurdly low for the value of this item, and he came back within minutes with couture-offer, asking $100 more. I couldn’t believe it. I agreed and snapped it up quickly in the hope of getting it offline before any of my American counterparts saw it. It was too late at night for any local Australians to see it. And it was only 15 minutes drive for my house.
For the next two days I felt awful. I kept thinking to myself ‘if only he searched online he’d know what it is worth’. But that’s just it. Everyone I spoke to just repeated the same thing – it’s the money he wanted for it, just be thankful. When he excitedly offered to drive it to me and turned up with a smile I released – he was more than thankful with what he got. He was happy and I was… well… feeling pangs of guilt that conflicted with my excitement. I mean… at least 4 Australian newspapers had run with the story of the North’s being found in Burnie, Tas. It was like a giant billboard that said “This is valuable” Online. Heck, Even Gizomodo featured it in its “13 of the world’s oldest and most beautiful typewriters” article.
What’s so special about the North’s?
Sitting in front of the North’s as a collector is something I ever expected to do. If I was lucky, I thought, I would possibly see one some day tucked behind glass in a museum somewhere. But here in front of me, with It’s crown of typebars proudly stretching to the sky like the it was king of the world.
To date I still haven’t cleaned the typewriter. I’ve left the dust and grime where it sits while I figure out the safest way to avoid long-term damage while cleaning and giving it a polish. Fortunately none of the grime impacts on the operation of this typewriter.
This is one of those situations where there is absolutely no question about the rarity of a typewriter. My understanding is that I have more fingers than there are known surviving examples of these machines.
The North’s engages the use of a ‘backstroke’ mechanism. The Type bars are located above the paper and to the rear of the machine in an effort to produce a ‘visual type’ outcome. However while it successfully achieves this goal, the implementation is awkward and requires the paper to be loaded into a curved cage, where it then disappears into the machine and pushes out into a spiralled rack below the paten during typing.
The backstroke mechanism itself is rare, with only 4 known designs implementing it. Of those 4 the North’s is the only attempt by any manufacturer to utilise a standard ‘Universal’ 4-bank keyboard, making the North’s design unique of these machines and the closest to producing a product that the business market could use.
Both the cage, platen and rack are integrated into the carriage – meaning that a quarter of the bulk of the machine is taken up by a large moving part. Watching it in action is quite fun as you see motion throughout the entire mid-section of the machine. Unlike other typewriters, nearly every part you see while sitting in front of it moves.
And watch you can. This machine arrived in complete working condition. It even came with ribbon that still has ink in it, although the machine has been incorrectly loaded with a bi-colour ribbon.
The margins are unusual. Chained to either side of the machine are two pegs that correspond to holes drilled into the carriage. You set the margins by dropping the peg into the appropriate hole, and when the carriage arrives at the end of the chain’s length, it stops.
You have to remember, this machine was made in 1892, well before many of the modern ideas of how a typewriter should work were patented. Although I have to admit, the chains appear to be just a Victorian era flourish, as other potential methods of achieving the same outcome are immediately obvious.
One of the cutest things about this machine is the implementation of the Line Spacer. It’s a crescent shape that almost feels like a hand reaching out for you to drop your thumb into, welcoming a partnership as though it is shaking hands with you in a high-5 to congratulate a line well written.
From the rear the typewriter feels like classical Victorian engineering.
Looking from the back you can also get a sense of how well the typebars were made. These are chunky metal beasts that appear to have been carved and forged out of steel rather than formed. They are possibly the thickest and heaviest typebars I have ever seen, and are like lengthy hammers made to pound text onto a page with certainty and durability.
Covering the typewriter is a case that’s clearly absorbed most of the abuse of time. The lacquer has bubbled giving it a rough, but interesting texture that makes the case instantly stand out from others. The design too is eye catching for how different it looks to the expected typewriter case – sitting tall rather than wide, with unique sides positioned like pockets to accomodate the carriage.
As you may have noticed on the base of the typewriter, there’s a chunky century old padlock stuck in the lock at the front of the machine. Sadly I didn’t get the key to this lock, but it was only put into the hoop to avoid losing it, and the case itself had not been locked closed. The good news is that there’s a specialise locksmith that I have found only 10 minutes from my house that can fabricate a key. When I have the time and the opportunity I’ll give him a call and see what I can organise him to make.
The North’s Typewriter in Australia.
This is now, as far as I know, the second North’s typewriter to turn up in Australia. And quite likely to be the only example still in the country. At the time the North’s typewriter was manufactured, Australia had a colonial (non indigenous) population of roughly 2.9 million people. In contrast the UK had 15.9 million, to the USA’s 62 million.
Australia wasn’t a major market for anything by comparison. In fact, Australia didn’t even exist – it was still a group of growing colonies. Details that are pressed hard into the steel of every early “The Empire” Typewriter, as it features patent listings from both the Colonies of ‘New South Wales’ (capital: Sydney) and ‘Victoria’ (capital: Melbourne) embossed into the spacebar.
Sydney was Australia’s first settlement, however Melbourne was an exploding business and cultural port city that had greatly benefited from the Gold Rush of the 1850’s. With money and people surging through its ports it rapidly grew, and was on its way to becoming Australia’s capital city, as its trade influence of the region grew beyond Sydney’s.
This is why so many interesting items of the Victorian era can be found in this city. As trade boomed and the population grew, so did governance and administration.
The Herald newspaper, 5th of March 1896 featured this article / advertisement on page 3.
Miss Nankivell’s office is not at typewriter dealership, and what she had to do with selling the North’s typewriter is uncertain. It may be simply this one machine, or she could have had a side line of selling them from her office. Miss Nankivell’s office appears to offer accounting and administrative services around the time of the article. Miss Elizabeth Nankivell had been widowed two years prior and was the wife of the surveyor Robert Nankivell, who brought his family to Australia and earned his fortune surveying for mines.
The building that Miss Nankivell’s office was in is still standing. 429 Chancery Lane does not exist anymore as its name was changed to ‘Little Collins Street’. While it is a cosmopolitan section of the town now, Chancery lane wasn’t a pleasant place back then. During this period the Butterworks near-by literally dumped daily between 10 to 15 tonnes of buttermilk straight onto the street to wash down in the drains. The head of the company justifying this as alright by saying “the buttermilk only smells when allowed to lie and get stagnant”. I can only imagine how unpleasant the smell was walking along Chancery Lane in summer.
While it runs adjacent to the bustling banking strip of Collins Street, I can’t see this being the ideal location to sell typewriters from.
Elizabeth’s contributed to many of Victoria’s early census works and worked on many government committees – and is often present at government meetings. The Nankivell’s contributed to the early growth of Melbourne and the Victorian colony, and their names can be found on many streets and buildings around the state.
Was this Miss Nankivell’s typewriter? Well, research is ongoing. But it appears that at least one North’s typewriter was brought into the country by her and sold from her office. This advertisement appeared only once, potentially implying that this wasn’t an ongoing trade. But the size of the advertisement hints that it wasn’t a small amount of money that she was seeking to get from the sale.
The Nankivell’s appear to have maintained contact with family back in England from where they emigrated from – first to New Zealand until the company Robert worked for went bankrupt, prompting the family to move to Australia at the height of the gold-rush. It is likely to have been a one-off. By 1896 Remington, Yost and even some Underwoods were entering the country.
The History Of The North’s.
In an era when many of the innovative inventors of these writing machines were having their names slapped firmly onto their products (Oliver, Sholes, Williams, Crandall, Densmore) the North’s is different in that it takes it’s name from the investor that bought the company that previously produced the failed ‘The English Typewriter’. Colonel John Thomas North was his name, and had been dubbed ‘The Nitrate King’ due to building an empire trading nitrate. Not a military man, the Colonel title had been bestowed on him by the Tower Hamlets Regiment Of Volunteer Engineers. Yet he paraded and dressed like an ageing cocksure military figure.
He was a shrewd businessman that started his working life as a mechanic, and used the courts to block competition to his sodium nitrate mining empire in Chile and Peru. At the time he bought The English Typewriter Company his empire was slowly collapsing. While he initially poured money into his typewriter venture, it soon teetered into oblivion. While the company technically traded until 1905, there’s no evidence of continued growth and of ongoing manufacture of machines through the entire 13 years of its existence.
The machine itself is the work of at least two engineers that came along with The English Typewriter Company. Jeweller’s son Morgan Donne, whose name adorns most of the patent designs for what would become The North’s Typewriter, and George Beverley Cooper, an engineer that seemed to have his fingers in several pies at once and is more known for his business acumen than his engineering.
Colonel North died in 1896 probably of a cardiac event, but oysters were initially blamed. There’s little showing the lights were still on at The North’s Typewriter’s after 1896 in their base at Hatton House (now Kovac’s House) at 57d Hatton Garden, London. George became chairman of the Sparkbrook manufacturing company that produced bicycles in 1897, and while Morgan patent’s were issued in the USA after this time he seems to have mostly disappeared into obscurity other than a driving charge in 1911.
The North’s was promoted heavily at first, but with Colonel North’s business empire entering into its sunset, there was little to back it further, or add additional funds to develop updated models.
The North’s had at least one famous owner – Playwright and theatre critic Clement Scott owned one. Mark Adams over at type-writer.org recently posted a picture taken from a magazine interview. However Mark was not able to identify the typewriter at the time.
What is interesting is that in at least one advertisement the typewriter is advertised as coming complete with ‘Board, cover and padlock’. My North’s typewriter sits on a redwood (same as its space-bar) board that looks like something of an afterthought, while the case uses the classic swinging arms closure method of locking down that was common at the time. At the front is the facility to insert a padlock through a loop that slots through a hinged plate.
Is it possible that the padlock firmly lodged onto my North’s is an original piece sold with the typewriter? This free-spinning tumbler lock appears to be of the era, so it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility Interestingly the loop and locking plate all appear of a size that was designed to accomodate that padlock. It may be well worth my while to get the key made.
For now I’m keeping the typewriter in my collection, locked up somewhere that I can appreciate it. Such a beautiful specimen of history shouldn’t be left in the ceiling of a house for safe keeping, only to be forgotten after death.
Thanks for reading