Tales From an Antique Typewriter Collector

My First Great Antique Typewriter Find

Guest Column By Martin Howard

I have been a collector of antique typewriters for twenty years now and have acquired many beautiful and historically important typewriters but my first real treasure will always be one of my favorites, the Columbia.

COLUMBIA 2 – 1885

Columbia Typewriter Co. of New York 1885

“It is to the Pen, what the Sewing Machine is to the Needle.”

This beautiful little machine was the first typewriter invented by Charles Spiro, a New York watchmaker, mechanical inventor and lawyer who went on to create many superb typewriters, including the Bar-Lock typewriter.

Bar – Lock 4 – 1892

Columbia Typewriter Co. of New York

With an ornate copper shield and double keyboard, this typewriter is a handsome machine. The black keys are for uppercase and numbers while the white keys are for lowercase and figures. The type-bars stand up vertically behind the copper shield and swing down, to type onto the top of the platen (roller). One would see as they typed, if they sat up straight in their chair and looked over the shield!

Mr. Charles Spiro with is granddaughter Beatrice (circa 1930)

It is notable to mention that Mr. Spiro, at age 16, in his father’s watch shop invented the stem setter and winder for watches. Before this invention watches had separate keys that were inserted into the side of the watch. Mr. Spiro built the key right into the watch and for doing so received the large sum of $4,000 for his patent.

Bertha, Mr. Spiro’s daughter-in-law, would write many years later of his first encounter with a typewriter that would have such a profound effect on his life.

“After nine years as a lawyer his legal career was brought to an untimely end by one of those chances that so often change the course of our lives. The man in the office across the hall became a proud possessor of a Remington typewriter and called Mr. Spiro in one day when he was passing to admire the new marvel. His feelings were a mingling of admiration for the ingenuity displayed in the machine and criticism that such a clever mechanism should be so unhandily and clumsily contrived.”

Columbia 2  typewriter Detail

Columbia 2 Typewriter Dial Detail

The watchmaker in Mr. Spiro was not settled. Within a few weeks he had made his first typewriter in his home workshop. He never went back to being a lawyer!

The Columbia typewriter is one of the most exquisitely built typewriters of all time, with the influence of the watchmaker’s craft immediately evident as one looks at the elegant celluloid index disk. The Columbia despite its small size, gives proportional spacing, being the first marketable typewriter to do so. This was achieved by a very clever mechanism, that perhaps only a watchmaker could have created, that moved the carriage varying amounts of distance depending on the widths of the characters chosen. So typing the letter ‘X” would move the carriage further along than when typing an ‘I’. The Columbia was also first in giving visible typing, allowing one to see what they had just typed. To do so one would look down through the open rectangular window just above the Columbia’s nameplate.

Columbia Typewriter no. 2 advertisement from The Martin Howard Collection

To type one rotates the black handle, causing the pointer to turn to the character one wants to type. The black handle is then pushed down, with the selected character on the underside of the vertical wheel, which makes contact with the paper. Ink is applied to a small felt pad, which rubs against the characters as one types.

One end of the pointer gives lower case and the other end of the pointer gives upper case and figures depending how you spin the black handle.

This typewriter originally sold for $30.00.

On March 14, 2007, Rosemary his granddaughter wrote to me with the following message; she herself being in her eighties was living in a nursing home.

“I really remember very little of my paternal grandfather, Charles Spiro. The youngest of my father’s three daughters, I was very young when he died.

I remember sitting on his knee, and his pushing my little finger up against the hole in a key. I remember driving with my father to pick his father up and take him to our house in White Plains.

That’s about it.

As you probably know, Charles Spiro Sr. was a self-made man. He started as a watchmaker, devising improvements to the winding mechanism (I think). Then he developed the Columbia Bar-lock typewriter. He invented a good many other items.

As far as I know, he had very little formal education. But he wasn’t “Charley, just off the boat” either. He was rather refined, and used to write flowery letters, etc., referring to my sisters and me as the “Three Graces.” He played the violin and I learned, wrote songs.

I don’t remember when my paternal grandfather died. I hope this has helped to beef up your picture of this talented, ornery man.”


Rosemary Vance

Typewriter Ad Showing Santa Typing on a Columbia Bar Lock

It was a moving experience for me to be able to reach back in time, to see the face of Mr. Spiro and to know that his beautiful granddaughter is still alive and has memories to share of him. Rosemary has now had her life and the young girl, who once sat upon her grandfather’s lap, is now the age he was in the photo. The chasm of time has not yet closed.

My journey, as a collector brings much into my life and it is with great pleasure that I share with you some of my tales…

Martin Howard

The Martin Howard Antique Typewriter Collection

Toronto – 2009

Editors Note: Martin Howard is always looking for Antique Typewriters. Contact him when you have something special or rare.
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5 thoughts on “Tales From an Antique Typewriter Collector

  1. What a wonderful collection! My father, too, collected typewriters. He worked for Remington-Rand as a typewriter/adding machine repairman in the 1950’s. I grew up watching him repair those machines, I developed an appreciation for them. When Dad passed away, my mother sold his collection.

  2. Wayne – Thanks for the comment, and the story! The best you got out of this was to see your father busy at what I suspect he loved, and that this transmitted to you, something you have used, and will use all of the days of your life…Something Good – Something Wonderful…

  3. Thank you Toma, Wayne and Martin for your very kind comments about my collection.
    Collecting these amazing machines has been rewarding in so many ways.

    I look forward to posting another story about one of my typewriters at Martin’s great blog in the New Year.

    Happy New Year!

    Best Regards,
    Martin Howard

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