The Classic Typewriter Page


No, this isn't an April Fool's joke -- this really is a typewriter! Working quietly, humbly and steadily, the Simplex Typewriter Company of New York City managed to carve out its own little niche in the American economy for half a century. The aptly-named Simplex occupies the plankton position in the typewriter food chain. It is one of the simplest index typewriters -- that is, writing machines on which the action of selecting a letter is separate from the action of printing that letter. This schematic side view represents the Simplex's workings:

Both the type and the so-called "keys" of the Simplex are made of rubber. In order to type, one simply revolves the wheel until the right letter is at the printing point, and presses down. As one does so, a simple device pushes the carriage or typehead forward one space.

Originally, the Simplex was meant to serve as a serious writing machine for those of modest means (the price of the first Simplex was $2.50; a Remington went for $100). Early Simplexes include nickeled parts, substantial wooden bases, and bells, and often they include both upper- and lower-case letters. (Those machines can instantly be recognized by their big typeheads, whose radius is, naturally, twice the size of the caps-only Simplexes.) The first Simplex, introduced around 1892, was a caps-only machine; this is the most valuable Simplex model.

A Simplex can actually produce nice-looking work; it just takes twenty times as long to produce it as a keyboard typewriter would. As the market in used keyboard typewriters became significant, around the late 1890s, most index typewriters were forced off the market. However, the plucky little Simplex survived as a child's toy ("they educate, they entertain").

Simplexes come in a zillion different models, but all are fundamentally the same. Often the models have entertaining names, such as "Special Demonstrated Model R." Special editions of the Simplex were made for occasions like the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

It's difficult to date a Simplex, but the serial numbers can help. The machine received at least the following U.S. patents:

For example, the latest serial number on the Simplex Special Model 1, pictured at the top of this page, is 1138427. This dates the machine at 1915.

This Practical Model 200 (between 1924 and 1932) imitates a keyboard typewriter.

On this model, as on most, the typehead moves rather than the carriage. Several elements of this typewriter are cardboard; the rest is thinly painted tinplate. Curiously, the large keys on the sides of the mock keyboard, which one would expect to represent shift keys, are in fact marked "spacer." Maybe Simplex didn't want to remind children that grown-up typewriters could type in both upper and lower case!

Sometime late in its life the Simplex was relabeled "Star." Then, this persistent little device disappears from the scene -- but you can often find old Simplexes at antique shops and shows.

The most common index devices of today are label makers, although even these are being replaced by fancier, keyboard-based devices like the Brother P-Touch. Ironically, in terms of market position, today's "Simplexes" are the few remaining typewriters; anyone who can afford to buys a computer instead.

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