The story of the arrival of Otto Petermann in America in 1904 is based on precise known details about people, places, dates and events. However, it is in part a fictionalised account, tying all these details together.
Otto Petermann in his workshop with his Corona 3 prototypeThe Hamburg-America Line’s SS Graf Waldersee docked at the East River Pier on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, New York, on the morning of Thursday, October 6, 1904. Thus began the American life of one of the most unlikely heroes in typewriter history.
At that moment the Graf Waldersee moored, however, no thought was being given to typewriters by steerage passenger Otto Petermann, from the hamlet of Hedingen in Switzerland. Had he even been allowed up on to the upper decks of the Waldersee, to gaze in the lobby upon the portrait of Alfred Ludwig Heinrich Karl Graf von Waldersee, once chief of the Imperial German General Staff, scribbling notes at his desk, it would not have occurred to Petermann that his own immediate future lay in designing a far easier way to write, the ultimate successor to the pen.
Uppermost in his mind on his arrival in New York City was Petermann’s sense of relief that the rough Atlantic autumn crossing had ended. It had only been 11 days since Petermann and his two Swiss friends had left Paddington Station in London by early morning train and boarded the Graf Waldersee in Plymouth. But their seasickness, and the cramped and unsanitary conditions in steerage on the Waldersee, had tested their powers of endurance, and their determination to start new lives in America. Of the 2546 passengers on that voyage, the vast majority were crammed into steerage, with barely a place to lie down and suffer in silence.
Steerage passengers, Graf WalderseeYet the adventure of these three young men was only just beginning. The respite of their landing in New York was soon overtaken by a sense of haste to reach North Philadelphia in the least time and at the least expense. They were seriously short of funds. Other steerage passengers, seemingly well informed by families already settled in the United States, had warned them that it might take as long as five or six hours to be ferried from the Graf Waldersee to Ellis Island, and then be “processed” by the Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration. That might, in turn, mean having to pay for a night’s accommodation in New York City.
Hedingen. Petermann's home villageThe three young Swiss men had just $125 between them, to last until they could find work in Pennsylvania. Hermann Schneider, a 20-year-old pastry cook, had $50 to his name, Ernest Yaisly, a 24-year-old upholsterer, $40, and the oldest among them, 28-year-old Petermann, a mere $35. Petermann had at first in Plymouth entered $25 under the heading of “Whether in possession of $50, and if less, how much?” on the Graf Waldersee’s manifest list. But upon ferreting through his pockets, he had found the equivalent of another $10 in coins, crossed out the $25 and written in $35. He also decided to be more precise about his occupation, crossing out “builder”, an undertaking well below his capabilities and qualifications, but one which he had had to take on in London in order to make and save money. Instead, Petermann inserted “machinist”, a job he had been trained to do at technical school in Switzerland, and hoped to resume in the US.
Currency was not an issue, it was the amount of it that mattered. Schneider, Yaisly and Petermann had been living and working in menial tasks in London for the previous two years. It had taken them that long to save the cash to complete their journey across the Atlantic. The odyssey had thus far taken them from their homes, seven miles south-west of Zurich, to Hamburg, and on to Boulogne-sun-Mar and then Dover. In England, between them they had raised sufficient money to pay for the rest of the way, for steerage berths buried in the hull of the Graf Waldersee, and then to reach Philadelphia. There they had friends with whom to stay, until they could get back on their own feet. Schneider and Petermann were headed for 1232 Buttonwood Street, where their florist friend Fritz Bähr and his wife Anna lived. Their English was not yet good, and their interpretation of their intended address was not Buttonwood, but perhaps typically Swiss: “Butterwood”. Yaisly would stay with waiter Ernest Hauri, from Seon, and his wife Maria at 455 North 13th Street. It seems there was a small enclave of Swiss-German migrants living in North Philadelphia at the time.
Ellis Island arrivals, 1904Before Scheider, Yaisly and Petermann could begin thinking about the next stage of their trip, however, there was Ellis Island. The three had to wait until first- and second-class passengers disembarked and were ushered through Customs at the East River Pier. Only then were the third-class and steerage passengers able to board the barges to take them across the Hudson River to Ellis Island, for their medical and “legal” examinations.
Petermann’s papers were in order and he was evidently in good health. Still, he was astonished by the line of 29 questions he was asked in the Great Hall, the Ellis Island registry room. Was he a polygamist? An anarchist? Had he ever lived in an almshouse, or an institution? Was he deformed or crippled in any way that the six-second physical test had not revealed? What about his mental health? And had he been solicited in any way to come to America? Petermann was cross-examined by the primary legal inspectors against the answers he had given in Plymouth on the Graf Waldersee’s manifest list. He passed.
Late that evening, Petermann, Schneider and Yaisly were able to catch a train directly to North Philadelphia from the Pennsylvania Railroad station at the foot of West Twenty-Third Street. A heavily draining 44 months later, Petermann would return to this same vicinity of New York City, his prospects looking a great deal rosier than they had previously appeared. Indeed, the path ahead in each of the lives of these three young Swiss migrants would ultimately become much brighter. Schneider would eventually become a chef in Windham, Connecticut, and Yaisly, who returned briefly to Switzerland in 1910, would own his own upholstery factory in Greenburgh, New York. In the short term, however, things seemed to be very grim indeed.
What exactly the 28 months after his arrival in the US held for Petermann we do not know. We do know that by early 1907, he was back in New York, broke and desperately looking for work as a machinist in the one industry that appeared to be growing and hiring – typewriter manufacturing. But, lacking experience, Petermann had been rejected by one typewriter company after another.
On Wednesday, February 20, 1907, Petermann’s diary records that he spent his last cent on a copy of the New York World, to search the classified advertising section for work. He found no suitable vacancies. Petermann had already been turned away once by a company which had been formed earlier that very month – the Rose Typewriter Company, headquartered in a dark little loft at 2234 Eighth Avenue. But he decided to try his luck there again, and walked to the Rose office, this time handing in a written application addressed to the company’s president, lawyer and publisher Marshman Williams Hazen.
Hazen must have been taken by the 30-year-old’s persistence, for he replied, inviting Petermann to an interview one week later. On February 28, Hazen and Petermann talked for two hours about Petermann's work experience and qualifications, before Hazen offered Petermann an opening as a drill press operator, at $12 a week, with the chance of a $2 rise after one week, if his work proved satisfactory. Petermann started work at the Rose factory at 10 o'clock the next morning, Friday, March 1, having survived those nine days with barely a cent to his name. The $12 salary must have seemed like manna from heaven. Petermann celebrated his new-found fortune with a "knockwurst" [knackwurst = sausage] dinner.
Otto Petermann is in the centre, back row, with a group of
Rose Typewriter Company workers, New York, 1909At the Rose factory, Petermann was not slow in suggesting changes to Hazen, voicing his opinion from day one on simplifying parts for the folding portable typewriter. But it was a year, to March 1908, before the first of these machines left the production lines. Three months later the company moved to a larger factory, at 447 West Twenty-Sixth Street - Hazen and Petermann had already begun to plan the next generation model of the Rose machine.
Conger, left, and Fassett, rightOne year on, the course of typewriter history would change forever. It is well recorded that a consortium led by Benn Conger, and including businessman, lawyer and politician Jacob Sloat Fassett, took over the Rose company, and in July 1909 renamed it the Standard Typewriter Company. Hazen, through ill-health, left the business to live with his brother in Boston, where he died on July 23, 1911, five days shy of his 71st birthday.
Otto Petermann, left, Jacob Fassett, centre, and Benn Conger, right,
at the 1912 launch of the Corona 3Conger and Fassett offered Petermann an on-going role with the new company, but he would have to re-locate to Groton. Although some of his fellow workers apparently believed, in all earnestness, that they risked their lives living among Native Americans in Groton, the “valiant soul” that was Petermann elected to make the move.
Petermann, left, and Brown, rightBut he had been given a massive incentive. Petermann was to be in charge of re-designing the Standard folding typewriter, in the process creating the legendary Corona 3. Typewriter production resumed in Groton in August, with Petermann opening his “experimental department” on August 31. His first task was to type on a sheet of blueprint paper a list of 32 improvements he planned to make to the Standard folding. Petermann, however, did not have ultimate control over the way in which the Corona 3 was shaped. He was working under Carleton French Brown, a civil engineering graduate who was an investor as well as the company’s new general manager and treasurer.
With his employment and income now secure, Petermann, still a bachelor at the age of 35, started to make changes to his personal life. Until 1910 he had been boarding in Groton with fellow Corona factory workers, but that year his mother, Sophie (born 1850), and his widowed older sister Sophie Keller (born 1874), came to live with him from Wald in Zurich, along with his young nephew, also Otto (Sophie and Otto Keller later reverted to the surname Petermann). To almost complete this settled life, Otto Petermann became a naturalised US citizen at the Tompkins Supreme Court on July 13, 1915. His mother died on February 24, 1918, aged 68.
On June 22, 1922, Otto Petermann married a much younger fellow Swiss native, Emma Rubin (born Unterseen, July 27, 1898). Emma had arrived in the US in 1921 and was naturalised in Chicago the next year. On July 15, 1923, they had a son born, Hans-Jörg.
Such was the financial well-being of this happy little Groton family, Emma was able to take Hans-Jörg back to Switzerland to visit family and friends in 1925. (Note: Those wishing to trace this family history should be aware Otto and Emma’s surname was also spelt Peterman and Petterman on various official documents.)
But while Emma and Hans-Jörg were away, all was not well on Otto’s work front. Changes were happening at Corona, and Otto was becoming increasingly less enamoured with the company to which he had devoted 18 years of his life.
'Crossover' Corona 3, left, later Corona 3, right.Petermann’s Corona 3 was an enormous commercial success, selling 610,000 units from 1912-1924 and making many millions of dollars for Corona (they sold for $50 each). But the facts of life back then were that Petermann was paid a set wage as a Corona employee, to come up with designs and improvements, These were patented in his name, but assigned to Corona. There were 32 of them all told. Petermann, who by 1925 considered himself a promoter as well as an inventor at Corona, was not paid one red cent in royalties.
AveryBy 1924, younger men, men like Henry Allen “Al” Avery, who had started as an apprentice with Corona in Groton on day one back in 1909, were breathing down Petermann’s neck in the development department. Other designers, such as Edwin Leander Harmon, were also getting in on the act. Corona no longer relied almost entirely on Petermann. Disenchanted over the royalties issue, Petermann decided he no longer had to rely on Corona.
When Corona and L.C.Smith merged in January 1926, Corona and its greatest designer parted ways. Petermann remained in Groton and continued to classify himself as an inventor, but he was now an independent, working for the like of the American Hardware Corporation of Connecticut. He started patenting door knobs and water heater attachments. By 1940 he was the proprietor of a novelty manufacturing factory. He was still designing up to 1946.
Otto Petermann died in Groton on October 17, 1961, aged 85. His widow Emma lived another 17 years, and died in San Diego on November 7, 1978, aged 80. They are buried together in Groton, alongside Otto’s mother.
Petermann’s typewriter designs, of course, live on, more than a century later, in the tens of thousands of Corona 3s still tucked away in private homes, on display in any number of places, and or in hundreds of collections right around the world. So, too, did they in Hewlett-Packard computer printers, the 1992-93 design of which referenced Petermann’s 1915 Corona 3 carriage movement. Even modern door knobs have the Petermann touch on them.
But Petermann’s final Corona 3 patent was applied for in 1922, and issued after he had left the company.
Petermann’s last designs for Corona were contained in four patents applied for by Avery after Petermann had ended his association with the Groton company, on this day (November 13) in 1926. They were co-credited to Avery and Harmon and assigned to L.C.Smith & Corona. All four were for the machine which succeeded the Corona 3, the Corona 4. At least Petermann continued to have an input into the advance of portable typewriters right up until his sad departure from the Groton plant.