The Keaton Music Typewriter

Filed under: Finds, typewriters — olivander July 21, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

Keaton Music Typewriter

Meet the incredibly scarce Keaton Music Typewriter. It’s not quite a typewriter as one would think of one in the traditional sense, is it? It’s a bit of an exoskeletor typing machine. Blank sheet music (not included in the photo for the sake of showing detail) rests on the board beneath the machine; the typebars downstrike to hit it. The shift scale indicator (curved part) delineates different points on the musical scale and the scale shift handle moves the type segment back and forth accordingly. (Click here to see the main keyboard separated from the smaller staff marks keyboard.) It has three spacebars which can move the machine from a partial note to an entire chord. If I knew the first thing about musical notation, I’m sure I could tell you all sorts of other fascinating things that it can do. Alas, I do not, and the manual is missing.

Very little is known about these machines, including how many may have been made. We know from patent records that a smaller, 14-key version was made from 1936 to 1953, when the 33-key version appeared. The one above is the 1950s model. Obviously, the market for such a contraption was small to begin with. They seem to have been purchased primarily by school music departments and small sheet-music publishing companies. Certainly, the device is too plodding to have been of much use to an individual composer. A Keaton is to a regular typewriter what a large-format plate camera is to a 35mm with autofocus and built-in light meter. It seems to be best suited for producing a single master copy to use to make multiple additional copies.

The best source of information I’ve found is, not surprisingly, an article Darryl Rehr wrote for issue #25 of ETCetera. You may note that the Keaton featured in Rehr’s article is serial #3184. Mine is #3180. As of 1993, when the article was published, there were about half a dozen known Keatons. I’ve learned that a handful of additional examples have turned up since then. Certainly the total number of known Keatons is less than two dozen. Undoubtedly, additional machines will crop up as schools and shops clear out their back rooms.

On a personal note, if you haven’t guessed by now, this is the typewriter I hinted at in a previous post. It was hidden away from general sight in a back room of an antique dealer’s storage barn, where I found out it has sat for a decade. The case is dirty and beaten, but the typewriter itself is in splendid condition, all things considered. I only had to reattach a few disconnected typebars; an easy fix. (Loose or missing typebars and missing keytops seem to be a common failure point among the handful of other specimens I’ve seen. The typebars are held in place by only a weak pair of brass finger-stockings, and they keytops are simply pushed onto their posts.) Despite its intricacy, it has a wonderful semi-homemade feel, from its ALCOA-stamped pots-n-pans aluminum frame to the re-purposed battery clips manufactured by the Mueller Elec. Co. of Cleveland, OH. Oddly, the typewriter collecting community in general doesn’t seem very interested in Keatons. Perhaps it’s because one can’t type actual words with them, or perhaps it’s the nontraditional design. Or perhaps it’s just too new. If this were an equally odd and only somewhat more scarce 1800s Hansen Typing Ball, collectors would be going ape over its discovery. Oh, well. I like it, and that’s all I care about.

Maybe I’ll do a coded typecast on it someday. Everybody get out your Oliver Hammond secret decoder rings!

14 Comments »

  1. Nice find! Like the typing ball, I just can’t imagine anyone using one of these things, although I suppose at least this is a “visble” writer. What a wild-looking machine, seems like it would be more at home in a submarine control room than a music teacher’s desk.

    Comment by mpclemens — July 21, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Very nice, Olivander! Really, the sweetest thing about this is that YOU have one. And no one else does. (Well, almost no one else.)

    Presumably, then, the guy didn’t ask a ridiculously high price for it, because it’s yours now, right?

    Comment by duffymoon — July 22, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  3. I wanted to say something profound about this typewriter, but all that came to mind was, whoa!

    Comment by Strikethru — July 22, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

  4. Duffy, let’s just say that while it was by no means cheap, it cost me much, much, much less than the one that sold on eBay last night. I don’t often buy machines that I know I won’t use; this was more of an investment piece for me. That, and it’s way cool.

    Comment by olivander — July 22, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Robert Homer Keaton was descended from my great grandfather, George Denis Keaton. I live in Chicago. I’ve never seen the actual Keaton music typewriter. Where are you folks located? Do you know that RH Keaton invented many other items (all fully patented). The most amazing to me was the non-skid tire right around the time that Firestone invented his non-skid tire. Never a patent dispute between Keaton and Firestone Co. In fact, Keaton sold Firestone hubs, etc., and had a close working relationship. Keaton Tire & Rubber Co located in S.F., then branced out to L.A. and Portland, Oregon, etc. R,H, Keaton lived and died in S.F. where I grew up, etc.

    Comment by nkeaton — July 30, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

  6. Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing that! Fascinating stuff. Now I’ll have to go on a patent forage for his other inventions. Do you know anything about his production process? I’d be interested to know if he had his own manufacturing line or if he farmed it out to some other company.

    I’d also be extremely interested if you know anyone in your family who might have the serial number records from his company. No one knows how many music typewriters were made or how to date them.

    I’m in southern Minnesota and don’t get to Chicago much anymore, despite an affinity for the city and its architecture. When I next go there (and if I can find room amongst all the baby gear to stuff it) I’ll bring the typewriter along and let you meet it.

    Comment by olivander — July 30, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

  7. olivander – I just sent you an e-mail -nkeaton.

    Comment by nkeaton — July 31, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  8. Could you send me a few close-uo photos of your Keaton? I just acquired one and someone added and (possibly) subtracted bits. It seems as though it’s almost workable but I need some close-ups, especially of the space mechanism. I would so appreciate it. Jenell

    Comment by Jenell — August 22, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  9. Wow, great info, My father has a Keaton, Serial #1494 that he purchased in Feb of 1952. he barely used the device and has all the relevent paperwork including unused originall staffpaper. Very Cool stuff!!

    Comment by davidt48 — November 13, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

  10. Robert Homer Keaton was my great uncle. To me, he was Uncle Homer, my grandmother’s brother. I knew him from the time I was a small child until he passed away in 1975 at the age of 92. Uncle Homer built his typewriters by hand in the basement of his large home on Carmel Street in San Francisco, up on Twin Peaks nine blocks above Haight Asbury. He manufactured his typewriters until a few months before his death. As a child and young adult I visited Uncle Homer many times and observed him working on his machines over the years. He was an amazing man, very intellectual. At the age of 91 he attempted to teach me calculus. I have many stories about Uncle Homer and a photo I took of him the year before he passed away. One memory that really stands out was Uncle Homer showing me letters from some of the purchasers of his machine, many from the great orchestras of the world and from The Beatles and Rolling Stones. I’d be happy to provide any more information that anyone would like.

    Comment by edyoung — August 16, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

  11. Robert Homer Keaton was my great uncle. To me, he was Uncle Homer, my grandmother’s brother. I knew him from the time I was a small child until he passed away in 1975 at the age of 92. Uncle Homer built his typewriters by hand in the basement of his large home on Carmel Street in San Francisco, up on Twin Peaks nine blocks above Haight Asbury. He manufactured his typewriters until a few months before his death. As a child and young adult I visited Uncle Homer many times and observed him working on his machines over the years. He was an amazing man, very intellectual. At the age of 91 he attempted to teach me calculus. I have many stories about Uncle Homer and a photo I took of him the year before he passed away. One memory that really stands out was Uncle Homer showing me letters from some of the purchasers of his machine, many from the great orchestras of the world and from The Beatles and Rolling Stones. I’d be happy to provide any more information that anyone would like.

    Comment by edyoung — August 16, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

  12. I recently acquired one of these – I think its serial # is 1622 (that’s the number painted on the base anyway). The assembly instruction sheet with it is dated 10/20/53. My mom’s coworker found it buried in storage and was going to throw it away! I just happened to be visiting and stopped by that day and told her I wanted it, just because I thought it was strange and interesting, and a cool thing to have since I’m a writer and musician. The case has seen better days, and it looks like a few of the hammers have fallen off, but are still there in the case. I’m a little astonished to find out just what a curiosity this thing is!

    Comment by BaronessHeather — January 27, 2010 @ 3:28 am

  13. Last I heard, Doris is 100 yrs young, when her father put the typewriter together she said her dad was the owner of the Keaton Tire company. I am middle aged but I used to sell antiques for years with her and my dad. What a fine person she is. This musical type writer was up in the attic in her San Francisco home she lived in Cole valley in San Francisco seems its probably still up there along with a million memories but she told me about it and its quite a clever invention to see first hand, they don’t have machines like this anymore but the inventor and his daughter I cherish even more. I was so delighted to see this machine again and to see she has relatives too. Reminds me I was really blessed to grow up around these people, we don’t often see many great inventions or know the story at all, people today know little of the older generation, they have their share of stories. This is a very clever invention. I am reminded of RCA victor’s Gramaphone and the signature dog “Nipper” who was positioned to show the brand RCA had made turn of the century. I think there is still time for any lost relatives to say Hello to Doris Smallian that is her married name but her father is definitely a Keaton and I wished she was alive for at least another hundred years. When I saw the Musical type writer it still had sheets for sheet music and looked like it was fresh out of the box and on the wall in the attic was a poster for the tire company-i used to help bring stuff to the shop for her and my father, yes someone made mention about Carmel st. -before my fathers passing he used to care for Doris’s husband who was sick,an tough ex merchant marine named Carrol but we called him”Dutch” after my fathers death I moved away but not before visiting Doris who was very active at 93. She and my father sold antiques for many, many years. Mr. Keaton was a genius and an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I miss the old days.

    Comment by just my type — August 13, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  14. KEATON MUSIC TYPEWRITER FOR SALE

    Greetings all,
    It is in great shape (the case is in great shape as well). Photos are available.

    my contact info:
    cscorsone@gmail.com

    Comment by chris — August 27, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

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