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!