Add a Comment to this Note (list members only)
Dead medium: the Auto-typist
From: dmorton@rci.rutgers.edu (Dave Morton)

Source(s): Alan C. Lloyd, "Typewriters That Think" by Alan C. Lloyd, "The Business Education World" 27 (April 1947): pages 453-454.

(((Dave Morton remarks: My father was telling me recently about an office machine that he used in the 1960s called the "Auto-typist," an automatic typewriter. I had never heard of this technology, but my mom chimed right in, saying that she had used them many times, acting as if they were the most common things in the world. So I did a little research, and this is one of the things I came up with. The article excerpted below describes some of the products offered by the American Typewriter Company of Chicago, maker of the Auto-typist.)))

"Typewriters that think! Well, almost. If you were to see one of the new automatic typewriters at work, you could easily believe that a robot brain had been shackled to its keyboard. For, incredibly, the machine can pour out individual letters.

"The standard automatic typewriter (that reproduced a letter from a piano-roll type of master copy) is familiar to teachers. Each of its letters is like the others produced from the same master. True, the operator may insert individual inside addresses and salutations, so that these letters appear to be individualized. The standard automatic typewriter, however, has, at the insistence of Big Business, been refined far beyond this initial stage, so that letters actually are individualized.

"Reproducing from a master roll on which scores of assorted paragraphs have been entered, the machine can select the paragraphs you want in the order in which you want them. Moreover, the machine will stop automatically at certain points, to permit the operator to insert names, dates, amounts, or other data; and then go on automatically."

(...)

"The secretary goes to the automatic pushbutton typewriter; presses buttons 3, 4, 62, 37, and 31 (((the text explains that these refer to pre-programmed paragraphs for form letters))); inserts letterhead stationery; types the inside address and salutation; and pushes the starting button of the machine. Zing! At 150 words a minute, the machine rattles off the five-paragraph letter and closing lines == while the operator calmly goes to a second, a third, and a fourth machine and similarly starts them."

(...)

"The operator needs but one skill; the ability to typewrite. (...) Even a beginner typist can turn out finished letters comparable to those typed by the best of secretaries. Because the job demands alertness and precision and the ability to work under pressure, the typing skill ought to be automatic so that the operator can devote his attention to running the equipment. (...)

"An experienced operator has little difficulty in keeping four machines running at once. Consequently, she earns a secretarial salary rather than a typist's salary, because she can produce as much correspondence as might be produced by a half dozen manual typists.

"The only operation that requires any special practice is the perforating of the master rolls. This is done on a separate machine having a typewriter keyboard. (...) The automatic typewriters operate at such high speed that they need extra time between juxtaposed letters, to permit the first letter to fall back into the basket before the second letter is struck. Because of this feature, the manufacturer prefers that master- perforation be done by his own or his agencies' staffs, though many large users have installed their own perforators and have permitted the manufacturer's agent to train one of the user's staff to perforate.

"The automatic typewriter is not an electric typewriter; it is pneumatic. The perforated master roll passes over air-valve slots. Each perforation permits air to escape from a particular slot, thus opening a valve. Each valve is connected by a tiny hose to a bellows, and each bellows is attached to a key. As the valves open, the bellows operates and the typebars are snapped up against the paper. The bellows-to-key arrangement is suitable for use with any make of manual or electric typewriter. The speed of the Auto-typist mechanism can be adjusted to operate any typewriter at the highest speed at which the typewriter is capable of being run."

(((bruces remarks: So here we have a rapid pneumatic typewriter using a bellows and player-piano roll. This narrative would beggar credulity, if it came from any source less credible than David Morton.)))

Dave Morton (dmorton@rci.rutgers.edu)