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Dead medium: The Robotyper; the Flexowriter
From: mkelley@osf1.gmu.edu (Mike Kelley)

Source(s): personal experience The Robotyper and the Flexowriter

by Mike Kelley

Back in the late 1950's and early 60's I worked first in the U.S. Senate, then in the White House, operating an automatic typewriter that made a final product == a letter == which the recipient thought was hand-typed.

The salutation was personalized, as was the address, but the body of the letter was typed automatically. I could operate three of these machines at once, turning out 85-90 "hand typed" letters an hour. I moved sequentially from one to the next, typing in the address and Dear ____ on one, while the previous machine was still typing the body of the letter.

The machines were called Robotypers and they are indeed a dead medium today. They operated like player pianos, each with its own air pump, a coded roll representing the "hand typed letter," and an IBM model B or C typewriter (another dead medium). There was a platform in front of the box that held the roll, with little hooks for each of the typewriter's key levers. One hook would go over each key lever, beneath the keyboard, and these would pull down the keys as the roll, with its coded air holes, was pulled over a bar.

Mechanics had a hard time disengaging the typewriter from the Robo machine when repairs were needed.

At the U.S. Senate, the place I worked was called the "Robo Room" == a terrible name for a room with a terrible sound. In the White House, we had the machines in a separate room near the Correspondence Section.

At the White House, the only type of IBM machine used for letters was the Proportional Spacing model == also a dead medium. These models used different widths for various letters, much like (but not nearly as complex) as cold type.

Most typed characters took up 3 space units. The "i" was two units wide, small "m" and "w" were 4, and the capital "m" and "w" were 5 units. This made the spacing movement uneven. In making the Robo Rolls at the White House, I had to add room on the roll to compensate for proportional spacing, a work something like typesetting. Without this extra work on the rolls, the old IBM's keys would overstrike typed characters on the page, or sometimes keys would even smash into each other.

I don't see the Robotyper on your Master List of Dead Media, but it surely is one very dead medium today. At its peak, however, it gave a lot of folks the feeling that their mail to politicians got a hand typed reply.

A newer and competing auto-typer, developed in the 1950s a bit later than the original ROBOTYPER, was the FLEXOWRITER == yet another dead medium. This machine, eventually manufactured by Singer, was an all-in-one typewriter and tape reader-writer.

The Flexowriter featured a reader/writer unit attached to the side of the typewriter. It had a little sprocketed drum, which pulled an oiled pink paper tape across a slot that contained 6 or 7 teeth. These teeth would move up and down in mechanical synchrony with each move of the sprocket-drum. There was a large blank tape reel stored on the back of the machine.

When composing a new letter, the end of this master tape would be fed through the sprocket, and the teeth would literally punch out holes in the tape, in patterns corresponding to each keystroke. Patterns were easily readable by those of us who learned them, so we could find a typo on the tape. We would fix it by hitting the "delete" key, which punched holes across the entire tape.

When a letter was completed, the operator added a "Stop" code, a number of "Deletes", and then cut the tape from the master roll. The front and back of the tape would then be glued together, lining up the delete holes at each end. This "endless loop" would then be put into the machine, and would type out the correspondence.

The advantage of the Flexowriter was that the same machine could write AND read the tapes. It was a self contained unit, needed no noisy air pump, and the little tape loops for each type of correspondence could be stored in far less space than the Robo rolls (which were similar in size to a player piano roll.

The products of both of these now Dead Media would be sent for a "genuine, hand made signature" to yet another machine called the auto-pen. As far as I know, the auto- pen is still alive and well in offices today.

Mike Kelley (mkelley@osf1.gmu.edu)