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First published as "The Stallman Unveiled" in ETCetera No. 62 (June 2003). Reprinted by permission. 

Poor Ferdinand Stallman. He labored for decades on his remarkable writing machine, only to become a footnote in typewriter history--and an erroneous footnote at that.

The first and last real information about Stallman in the literature is found in the Typewriter Topics history (October 1923): "A small machine weighing only 2 1/2 pounds invented by F. G. Stallman, 45 West 126th Street, New York City, the Stallman was made known to the industry only in April of the current year. It utilizes a type wheel." After that, there are no facts at all. Ernst Martin speculated that the Stallman "perhaps should be traced back to the Mignon." Later historians reduced it to a mere Mignon clone or name variant, if they mentioned it at all.

So Ferdinand Stallman languished in oblivion, until I spotted a photo on eBay of the two models of his invention--which is nothing like the Mignon! With help from Rich Cincotta, I found two patents which give us some insight into Stallman and his brainchild.

On the Stallman machine, the keyboard is a rigid plate mounted on an arm that swings down when one types; the movement of the arm turns a typewheel and brings it down to the platen. When a key is depressed, it pushes down a pin; a "stop-plate" hits the pin and stops the rotation of the typewheel, selecting the appropriate character. The platen is a tiny fixed surface, and the paper is carried in a basket, as in the Hammond.

Such a creative design sounds more like the 1890s than the 1920s. And in fact, the Gay Nineties is when Stallman must have started work on his design: his first patent application, filed in 1903, makes reference to "my improved machine." The patent (#966,714) makes no fewer than 123 claims. Stallman's goal, he writes, is "to produce an efficient but exceedingly simple, compact, light and comparatively inexpensive machine ... having the functions and utilities of a first class type-writer, though especially adapted to meet the requirements of traveling men and others for office and traveling use." The 36-key keyboard is intended to be operated by one hand, with the palm resting on the front of the depressible arm, while the other hand shifts, spaces, and returns the carriage. Stallman proposes a non-QWERTY keyboard (a sure sign of an idealist) and even makes provisions for a mechanism by which "the shaded [less-used] characters may be cut out from operation, and the light characters may be operated by shorter strokes, thus increasing the speed." Unlike machines such as the Blick, in which lowercase and uppercase letters are on different rows of the typewheel, this design puts lowercase and uppercase on different halves of the typewheel, and the shift key changes the direction in which the wheel turns.

This patent was not approved until 1910, seven years after it was filed. Stallman's residence is listed as San Francisco. Was he there during the 1906 quake? How was his life disrupted by the War?

We do not know; we hear from him next only when he announces in April 1923 that the machine is finally ready to be put into production, and gives the New York address. In May of that year he filed a new patent application, but replaced it in November 1924 with a revised application (using the same attorneys he had used 21 years earlier, Dowell and Dowell). Now Stallman is listed as a resident of Pittsburgh. The new patent (#1,594,573) was granted in 1926 and makes 28 new claims. This time Stallman describes the market for his machine as "literary people, students, and small store keepers." The machine now looks sturdier. The new keyboard has only 30 keys, in alphabetical order, and there are two shift keys which shift the typewheel forward and backward along its axis. One innovation is a "thin tape of hard tough material" that passes over the little platen and is "coiled in a receptacle."

But what about that photo? The photograph is glued to an unmailed one-cent postcard which is stamped September 5, 1923--just a few months after Stallman claimed he was ready to put his typewriter on the market. There are handwritten notes on the photo, presumably by Stallman himself. He recommends using a magnifying glass, and I did my best to see the details using a high-resolution scanner.

The first model, marked "Stallman Pocket Typewriter," weighs only 16 oz. (one pound) and as the photo shows, can fit with its case into a jacket pocket--although your tailor might not recommend it. Call it a jazz age Palm Pilot. A plate on the case is stamped "Patent Applied For." (Why not mention the 1910 patent?) The second model, marked "Stallman Type Writer," weighs 2.5 pounds (Typewriter Topics was right). Call it a flapper laptop. You can clearly see that the keyboard is arranged in alphabetical order.

Stallman (?) is proudly holding a letter typed on the pocket model. Although the carriage is short, the paper can be twice as wide as the carriage because of the fixed platen. Using maximum magnification and all my PhotoShop tricks, I deciphered about 25% of the letter. It is written on stationery from the Hotel Normandie, New York, and seems to be a personal letter recounting a visit to an "old home." Is the text fiction? Or did Stallman actually visit his childhood home in the environs of New York and happily write back to a relative about it?

After his second patent, Stallman disappears into the mists. It's not too hard to imagine why the project failed. By the 1920s, this invention was too bizarre for the American public. Besides, I suspect that Stallman was out of money, if he had to resort to hand-captioned photos to promote his invention (no printed advertisement or prospectus has turned up so far).

It's possible that Stallman would have had more success with Europeans, who remained receptive to oddball typewriters (such as the Mignon) longer into the twentieth century. In fact, a typewriter suspiciously similar to the Stallman was actually produced in Berlin in 1908. This is the Phönix, invented by Wladimir Paciorkiewicz, which together with the Stallman and the Lambert is the third fixed-keyboard machine known. The Phönix seems to use some of the same principles as the Stallman, except that, if I understand the mechanisms correctly, its keyboard tilts from side to side while the Stallman's does not; the Phönix also has a conventional cylindrical platen. So as not to insult the memory of either Stallman or Paciorkiewicz, I will say that until further research shows otherwise, this seems to be a case of "great minds think alike." (Paciorkiewicz went on to create the first Polish-built typewriter, a three-row frontstroke named the Pacior.)

The big question remaining in your mind, if you are anything like me, is whether we might find an actual Stallman typewriter someday. Being an optimist, I say yes. The machines in the photo seem to be solid, functional, professionally produced items. It's possible that they are one-of-a-kind prototypes, but maybe dozens or even hundreds were produced. And I bet that somewhere, in some attic of some distant cousin of Ferdinand Stallman, one of those machines is waiting for one of us to discover it.

PS: An earlier Stallman patent, from the 1890s, has now been found. Stay tuned for details!