Penman No. 430: Rizal’s Typewriter

Penman for Monday, December 20, 2021

NOW THAT I have your attention, let me backtrack quickly and clarify that title: I’m talking about a typewriter that Jose Rizal or the Katipunan could have used, had they been tech-savvy enough and infected with 19th-century FOMO.

Early this month, a box I had been eagerly awaiting arrived from England, where I had found the machine on—where else?—eBay, selling for a reasonable price (“reasonable,” that is, to oddball collectors like me). Inside the box was a wooden case, visibly old, with a latch on each side. I undid both latches and the case opened to reveal what I expected to see: “an antique Blickensderfer No. 5 typewriter with spare typewheel in original oak case,” according to the ad I saw. But the first thing that struck me wasn’t the machine itself—it was the fragrance of oak, still embedded in the wood after more than a century.

Why did I even want the Blick, as the typewriter invented by the American George Canfield Blickensderfer came to be known? By the time the first Blick was patented in 1891, the typewriter had been on the market for about 17 years (many prototypes preceded the Sholes and Glidden, but were never mass-produced, except for the sci-fi-worthy Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1870). But most were big and bulky, and—surprise—wrote on the other side of the typist, who couldn’t see what he or she was typing. 

The Blick No. 5 was the first typewriter that could truly be called a portable, with a keyboard and a front-facing platen or paper roller, much like its modern counterpart. Think of it as the MacBook Air of its time. It looked like an insect with a big head and spindly legs, and even more strikingly, it employed what its inventor called the “scientific” DHIATENSOR keyboard—those bottom-row letters supposedly figuring in 85 percent of the words in English. QWERTY had already established itself as the standard layout early on, and later Blicks would use it, but I preferred the quirkiness of DHIATENSOR.

The Blick No. 5 was given its public debut at the 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a monumental event meant to showcase such novelties as a moving walkway, AC electricity, and the Ferris wheel. The small, lightweight typewriter became a hit, helped along by the fact that it sold at a third of the 100 dollars that most other typewriters cost at the time.

So I wanted one in my collection for historical purposes; prior to this, my earliest machine was a larger and grander-looking Hammond 12 from around 1905. That Hammond got to me, also in its original wooden case and all the way from Ohio, luckily in one piece. 

That’s the trouble with collecting any machine with scores of tiny parts a hundred years old—iron corrodes, rubber shrinks, wood warps, paint fades; screws come off, joints get fused solid, whole sections vanish, and often all you have left is a rusty lump of metal better tossed into the garbage. 

Most Blicks and other old typewriters you can find on eBay will manifest at least a few of these problems. Missing parts—obscure and ancient—can be hard to find; thankfully a global network of typewriter enthusiasts exists to offer help and advice online. Reviving a machine with frozen typebars is another major chore; but again expert repairmen still remain to come to the rescue. (Among them is our own Quiapo-based Gerald Cha, whom I’ve written about, through whose hands all my machines pass for the requisite CLA—cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment.) Shipping is yet another potentially harrowing complication—fragile, valuable, and irreplaceable machines can be turned into scrap with one drop of a poorly padded box.

It was a miracle that the Blickensderfer turned up at my doorstep whole, complete, and needing just a bit of lubrication. When Gerald typed out its first few letters in script, it was as though a mute singer had found her voice after a century.

But one more ritual had to be performed: dating the machine to the year it was manufactured (mine was an English model, made in America but sold out of Newcastle-on-Tyne). For this, typewriter collectors have an online resource to fall back on: typewriterdatabase.com, which has been painstakingly crowdsourcing and cataloguing the serial numbers of hundreds of brands of typewriters. I first had to locate the number on my Blick; it was there on the upper right of the bottom of the frame—68403. A quick check yielded the year it was made: 1896. More than liking the Blick, I now stood in awe of it.

I’d like to fantasize that some of these machines made their way to Manila and figured, somehow or other, in the Revolution, although I do have to admit that the standard image of Rizal poised to write “Mi Ultimo Adios” with a quill pen in hand is much more appealing than him pecking away at a keyboard. 

(Image from joserizal.com)

I asked Ambeth Ocampo about it, and he said that while he hadn’t come across any connection between Rizal and a typewriter, our hero surely would have encountered it in his many travels abroad. Rio Almario seems to recall having seen a copy of the Katipunan’s Kartilya in typescript, but we can’t be certain when that was made. With the Americans came the Remingtons—and it’s no small coincidence that the same company made the firearms that subdued us and the typewriters we began writing in English on. I can only stare at my Blickensderfer No. 5 and wonder what stories sailed across its paper horizon.