Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
A prize machine from the Science Museum's collection, the Underwood typewriter was the forerunner to the modern typewriter, with its mechanics and appearance being almost identical to those seen today. Its success lay in one major advancement. This was a design that allowed typists to view what they were writing. Previous models had the paper and writing enclosed because the workings of the machine prevented visibility.
The Underwood was invented by the American Franz X. Wagner. He began to develop a mechanism which placed the bars that supported the moulded letters around the front of the machine. When a letter was depressed on the keyboard the bar would strike the front sheet, print and then fall back. This is how most modern manual typewriters work today.
Wagner showed this model to the manufacturer of inks and typewriter ribbons, John Underwood. He instantly recognised the importance of such a design and supported the scheme. It is arguable whether Wagner was the first to think of the idea of visible typing, but he was the first to perfect it.
This advance was not the only one seen on the Underwood. The machine also speeded up the type bar so that typing could be done with a lighter touch. It also had two shift keys giving capital letters and lowercase, and a tabulator key, which prevented rapid travel of the carriage (the top part of the typewriter).
The machine keyboard also adopted the QWERTY layout, recognising its popularity and usability.
The machine was a success and the company had to move twice to expand, changing its name in the process from the Wagner Typewriter Company to the Underwood Typewriter Company. By 1939 five million Underwood machines had been produced and marketed all around the world.
The success of such a machine led to the decline of many of the earlier more unusual typewriter designs. Most manufactures recognised that they could not better the Underwood and instead set about adapting it so that they could manufacture it under their name.
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