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Photograph copyright Darryl Rehr, from
Antique Typewriters and Office Collectibles

Here's a machine that any collector would be thrilled to find! The Crary is a grotesquely beautiful thing which, it seems, was just too strange to survive, even in the wildly diverse typewriter kingdom of the late nineteenth century.

This device was patented by John Mason Crary of Jersey City, New Jersey in 1892. It features a circular keyboard with lowercase letters and punctuation in the front (the lowercase vowels are the closest characters to the typist), uppercase letters on the sides, and numerals and figures in the back. According to Ernst Martin, there are two space bars or space keys, and two shift keys. The paper (or a bound book) lies flat under the machine, and the entire keyboard and typing mechanism travels from left to right as the typebars strike down onto the printing surface. Visibility? Poor.

Bizarre as all this sounds, maybe it was not really a foregone conclusion that the Crary would fail. The Elliott-Hatch and Elliott-Fisher book typewriters, which, like the Crary, typed down onto a flat, stationary platen, were quite successful in the first part of the twentieth century. The circular keyboard was used on some other failures -- the Daw and Tait of 1884, and the Crown (also known as the Donnelly) of 1887 -- but also on the Lambert, which was moderately successful.

Some specimens of the Crary were manufactured in 1894 by the Garvin Machine Company of New York. These were probably experimental models, rather than machines that were actually sold to the public. The Garvin Company estimated that production versions could be made for as little as $28 each. At this time, the New York Sun reported enthusiastically on the Crary's prospects:

It bears but slight resemblance to any of the standard typewriters in use, weighing but ten pounds, and being built on simple and compact lines. The keyboard is disc-shaped and contains eighty celluloid keys. The ribbon can be changed with great celerity. The machine will receive a book of any required size or thickness. It has perfectly flat platens, separate from the feed rollers, and when several copies of manuscript are required, a platen made of brass is used. A single sheet of notepaper seems quite as much at home between its rollers as a double-entry ledger. And to crown it, the price of the machine, although not yet fixed, is certain to undercut the hundred dollar marks on other first-class typewriters.
Things were looking bright for the Crary, but success was not to be. This typewriter is extremely rare today. The machine pictured at the top of this page is in the collection of the Milwaukee Public Museum. Another, incomplete Crary was sold by Auction Team Breker in 2007, and another turned up in an estate in 2018. A prototype Crary has also been found; you can read about it in The Virtual Typewriter Journal.

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