With the centennial of World War I comes many commemorations, and some interesting material surfaces to paint a background picture of the period. I have taken a keen interest in newspapers and the famous “100 years ago” articles that have been republished for the past six months: my great grandfather fought two wars and, having come back unharmed from both while being on the front, enforced a strong policy in the family to celebrate both armistices. Like many french families, we never talked too much about the wars at home, though. Yet I remember vividly going through a “treasure trove” at my grandparents’ that contained hundreds of postcards, and be told that those were my great grandfather correspondence from WWI. They were very peculiar. Some only had one word written — “well”. When questioning my grandmother she explained to me that her father would post one card everyday to simply signal his wife he was alive. Sometimes he had time to write more, sometimes exhaustion and war just took the best of him and he simply sent a card so that the chain remained unbroken. Now, like most people from that time, he had a perfect calligraphy, but I have seen other such cards later, found in street fairs, that were typeset. I must confess I never gave much thought about it and assumed those were from office workers. Turns out I was probably wrong: a portable typewriter was sold at that time.
The ad pictured above is for the “Virotyp”, the portable typewriter that you can use on a horse back (as I discovered in a later ad). I find it a fascinating instrument. It could be operated singlehanded and, contrary to earlier models had a mechanism to advance the paper automatically when a letter was entered. Typing a letter was not really practical: you had to select it from a rotary dial and press the dial support to punch the letter, while inking was provided by means of a rubber band. The punch was made through a stamp that was carved in brass, like all mechanical typewriters of that time: I am not sure if they industrialized the manufacturing to use a lost wax process or just cut each letter on a one-by-one basis. There was also a mechanism, a miniature lever, to advance to a new line. The first version had a limit in the size of paper it could take, but two subsequent versions — including a tabletop one — removed that limit and allowed for a full A4 sheet to be used. At that time the ad must have changed, though I cannot source it: the original claimed to be “the only typewriter that doesn’t need to be rested against something”. This typewriter proved to be a hit during the war, I am not sure what happened to the product after, or to its creator, Mr Viry. I can’t think of a “user interface” more impractical than a rotary dial for entering text. Can you remember the jokes going around before the iPhone was presented? I do. Some pundits seriously supposed that an Apple phone would be a glorified iPod, with its click wheel, and limited communication capability as a result. Yet, as impractical as it was, the Virotyp fulfilled its goal: to enable its user to write with limited finger motility. Mark that one down as the first handheld communicator? Given the knowledge and production methods of the time, it is a device that makes complete sense, and is functionally complete.
One of the most interesting courses I attended in engineering school was industrial design. Parts of it were cumbersome, we didn’t have CAD software until I was undertaking my PhD, parts of it were truly amazing. In particular, I loved design functional analysis and reverse engineering. We were taught to read a technical drawing and criticize it. The emphasis was always: how does this work? We did dismantle a few pieces, and study a lot of drawings. The course proceeded as a drawing projected on a white board and one would come to analyze it. If you were lucky, you would pick something like a Pascal calculator, if not an automatic gearbox (I picked the latter). We did discuss at length miniaturization in some cases (the calculator was a perfect example of an analog mechanical device), but never came to this example. I wish we did. There are only a few of these Virotyp left, and they go quickly on eBay for an insane price whenever a functioning one comes up. I wish I could get one and reverse engineer it, it is a very clever (and beautiful) device.
One last remark: it is amazing to see that this ad appeared during the summer 1914, and as all the others I have seen, nothing seemed to indicate that the war was coming. It was just the right device at the right time for the wrong reasons.
David Mendels is a Professor of mobile, micro and nanotechnology at Surya University in Jakarta (Indonesia). He developed the DashPlus app (based on Patrick Rhone’s paper-based system), and recently co-founded IanXen. The goal is to eradicate malaria with the help of a novel, automated, diagnostic on iPhone. He usually blogs on Attila’s Den.
- The earliest pocket typewriter I know off was British, and dates from 1887. While it is admittedly cute it was nothing like the Virotyp, as the paper had to be moved manually between punching consecutive letters, see the gallery here ?
- I came close to getting a Remington 7 a few years ago, to be outbid at the last minute. Enraging. I have never been able to bid on a Virotyp though. ?