Home Is Where the Blickensderfer Is
By Harper Graf, Historical Resources Intern
I felt sure that the red, rotted leather case would fall to bits in my hands as I slid it out of its box. After a moment of searching for the releases, the double clasps shot open eagerly — not at all like a 120-year-old typewriter case is supposed to act. Now mildly curious, but still expecting the worst, I lifted the lid only to discover that my instinct had been correct. The inside was covered in grime, there appeared to be some missing parts and, to top it all off, the keyboard resembled a jumbled mess with no QWERTY configuration in sight.
Just a typical day doing museum collection inventory? Not quite.
A quick Google search revealed that my skeptical gaze now beheld the Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter.
Interest now piqued (it is not every day you research a name like Blickensderfer), I dug deeper through antique typewriter sites and museum Web pages.
George Canfield Blickensderfer invented this typewriter. It used a cylindrical stamp with three rows of letters and numbers on it that would rotate to the correct symbol when typing. Each letter did not need its own striker, so the typewriter did not jam if the typist typed too fast. His letter roller also meant a dramatic decrease in parts, meaning a decrease in cost and complexity to make.
The case that I had despised opening revolutionized the portability of the typewriter. And that strange keyboard I mentioned? Blickensderfer called it his “scientific” style of keyboard, also known as the DHIAT ENSOR layout. He’d studied which letters were used most and put those at the bottom row of the keyboard, the typist’s home base. The next most frequently used letters were on the next row up and the least at the top. This configuration means that the fingers only have to go up, never down, using natural finger movement. The overall effect was a dramatic increase in efficiency and rate of typing speed. In short, this typewriter exemplifies the desire for innovative perfection.
I had found an incredible piece of machinery.
Much like I have found an incredible opportunity, here at the Kentucky Historical Society.
Sometimes, it is easy to believe that the best opportunities are in large cities or exotic locations and that home, so seemingly plain and simple, has nothing new to offer. I had volunteered at KHS the summer before I left for college and so, when I returned, I thought I would not have much more to learn.
However, much like my seemingly plain and simple typewriter, home could not wait to surprise me. Although my instinct had been correct that I would once again be inventorying objects, as I dove further into my work I realized the depth of knowledge and ability I had gained from such an experienced and caring staff. They, like the typewriter, have not stopped with making their work merely passable. The wall-to-wall inventory project that I helped with is not just a check mark on a sheet of paper – we are inputting detailed records of every object in the collection, including provenance and professional images, for online public access. This project enables anyone to explore KHS’s collections and further participate in the storied fabric of Kentucky history.
My experience close to home surprised me. But I’m so grateful for that surprise, because without it, I would not have discovered the sort of museum I want to be a part of – one that respects and cares for the artifact AND the story it tells. From my experience here I can proudly say that I would pass over a thousand IBM Selectrics to find just one Blickensderfer No. 5.