Paying Homage to Lee Spear Burridge on the Centenary of his Creation of the Underwood 3 Portable Typewriter
I'd been searching for a decent image of Lee Spear Burridge for almost five years, and finally found one today, courtesy of the National Cyclopedia of American Biography Volume 16 through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Thank goodness such things are still findable online when one digs hard enough. Not easy, but they're there.
The Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter was not launched on to the market in the United States until early October 1919. But the launch had been in the planning stages for more than two years, including the expansion of the Underwood plant at Hartford, Connecticut, to accommodate the installation of special equipment to manufacture this wonderful little machine. It was also in 1917 that the first patents for the intricate mechanics of what we now refer to as the Underwood 3 were issued. These utterly brilliant designs - masterpieces of genius in miniature engineering - had been the work of Lee Spear Burridge in the months before his death in New York City on May 4, 1915. So, in all, the Underwood 3 was at least five if not seven years in the making - and the end product showed how meticulously this great portable typewriter had been devised.
Amazingly, the Underwood 3 was the first new, classic keyboard, true portable on the market in more than seven years - since the launch of the Corona 3 in 1912 (a development of the Standard Folding of 1907). The intervention of World War I - a period during which sales of the Corona 3 had rocketed worldwide - had much to do with prolonging that gap. Industrial trouble at the Underwood factory in the summer of 1919, which caused the temporary shutdown of the plant in August, had delayed matters even further, albeit only by a matter of three weeks or so. But as Typewriter Topics said in its exclusive announcement of the Underwood 3 launch, in its November 1919 issue (see above), rumours of the coming of an Underwood portable had been swirling through the industry for some time. Indeed, these had pushed up Underwood's share price by 15 points in mid-April 1919, six months ahead of the official release.
Underwood's major sales pitch for its first portable was that it did not require "unfolding", unlike the Corona 3, but came ready to use in a case almost the same size (indeed, marginally smaller, if anything). Underwood also extended the well-established advertising line from the massively successful Underwood 5 standard machine - that it was "the machine you will eventually buy" by changing "buy" to "carry". It's a nice, telling line.
The Underwood 3 is my third favourite typewriter of all time, behind the Blickensderfer 5 (launched 1893) and the Corona 3. My pecking order is, by sheer coincidence, in chronological order, but it's a close run thing. Indeed, my daughter-in-law Emily, walking around the typewriter museum yesterday, picked out the Underwood 3 as her favourite model, followed by the Sun No 2. By a far greater coincidence (given she had no idea who designed them), both of these machines were invented by Lee S. Burridge.
A pretty pair of Burridge typewriters.
One of my Underwood 3s beside the Sun No 2.
Since I made such a huge fuss over the centenary of the Corona 3 on this blog three years ago, I thought I should at least mark 100 years since Burridge applied for his patents for the Underwood 3 before this year expires, tomorrow. But I'm sticking with 1919 as the year of the Underwood 3's birth, as it maintains that freaky sequence of seven years or multiples thereof in my "Magnificent Five": the Blick in 1893, 14 years later the Standard Folding-Corona 3, seven years from the Corona 3 to the Underwood 3, and another seven to the Royal portable. I must confess, however, that my favourite machine to use today is the first Remington portable, and there was 14 years between that and the Hermes Baby, with another 14 years to the Olivetti Lettera 22. Ah, I make it work in my head somehow!
One of my gorgeous Underwood 3s basks in the late afternoon Canberra summer sun.
Behind many great typewriter inventors is often a mechanical engineering genius who takes the grand ideas and makes the whole concept work in reality. In the case of Lee S. Burridge, this mastermind was one Charles Wesley Howell Jr, who was born in Newark, New Jersey, on February 16, 1869, the son of Charles W. Howell Sr (1844-1917), a lifelong machinist who manufactured intricate machinery. Charles Howell Jr worked for Burridge's Sun Typewriter Company for much of his life, taking over as manager after Burridge's 1915 death. As well as the Underwood 3, he also worked on the Sun No 2 for Burridge.
When Burridge and Howell started to devise the Underwood 3 in 1912, they obviously intended it to be the Sun No 3, not an Underwood. With Burridge's sudden death, however, it was not Howell but Burridge's brother, Francis Ogden Burridge (born Rome, Italy, February 5, 1858), who reaped the millions of dollars in royalties Underwood paid on each Underwood 3 sold. Lee Burridge had made Frank Burridge the executor of his will and the inheritor of almost everything he left behind, aside from $7500 for one Fern Hiner and $1000 for the Aeronautical Society. Here is Lee Burridge's last will and testament, signed three weeks before his death and co-witnessed by the sorely denied Howell:
In 1917 Frank Burridge was to learn Underwood was desperately searching for the design of a small portable typewriter, in order to challenge the by-then absolute and highly profitable domination of Corona in the portable typewriter marketplace, and assigned his late brother's patents to the company, all the while making certain he kept the royalties for himself. Howell died in Pinellas, Florida, in 1949, with nothing like the wealth Frank Burridge had accumulated. When Frank Burridge died on September 25, 1930, aged 72, he was described as a "millionaire typewriter inventor and manufacturer". The truth was, he hadn't invented anything. Some stories did concede he had made his vast fortune from typewriter patents, rather than inventions. (He didn't even leave anything to his widow, who claimed Frank was "first perfecting" the designs when they married in 1910. But Frank did leave $75,000 for his mistress.)
Lee Burridge's debt to Howell was revealed in Burridge's biography in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography Volume 16:
This doesn't mention Burridge also designed a harpsichord early in his inventing career - maybe best forgotten in light of other, later achievements?
Burridge's obituary in Typewriter Topics touched on his loyalty but, interestingly, made no mention of his work on the portable:
The New York Times obituary:
Just before his death, Burridge wrote an interesting - and optimistic - letter to Typewriter Topics:
He was only nine at the time!
Burridge's comments about the European war's impact on the US typewriter trade were not borne out by Underwood's (or Corona's for that matter) booming business. Underwood was propelled toward entering into the portable typewriter market on the back of massive profits from sales of the Underwood 5 from 1917 through to October 1919. On February 15, 1919, The New York Times reported (without mentioning the coming portable):
The Wall Street Journal added in November and December 1919:
Although production was slow to begin with, 26,500 portables had been produced by the end of 1921, and in the next two years another 73,500 were made. The Underwood 3 continued to be manufactured until the end of 1929, by which time 212,500 had been made.
The Underwood 3 reached Australia in August 1920:
It had reached England by September 1920, as this advert from the London Times shows:
Naturally, Underwood spared no effort nor expense in advertising and promoting the Underwood 3 in the period between 1920 and 1924, including commissioning Norman Rockwell to produce this fantastic Daniel Boone painting: