The first Japanese typewriter: A 100 year-old mechanical marvel with 2450 characters!

by Ralph Simpson

This Japanese Nippon typewriter was recently re-discovered in History San José’s North Warehouse. It is a heavy and unique typewriter, of historical significance because it is the original version of the first Japanese-language typewriter. While complete and operational, the typewriter was in very poor cosmetic condition. This is the story of how this artifact was restored to its original glory.

Kyota Sugimoto

Kyota Sugimoto (1882-1972) (Courtesy Kazumasa Sugimoto)

The Japanese typewriter was invented in 1915 by Kyota Sugimoto and includes the 2400 Kanji characters most commonly used in business and government documents. Sugimoto worked in a Japanese printing office, which is evident in the design of his typewriter. The character tray is similar to the letterpress print blocks used in a printing press. In 1985, the Japan Patent Office celebrated its centenary by recognizing Sugimoto as one of the 10 greatest Japanese inventors.(1)

Sugimoto received Japanese patent #27,877 in 1915, and US patent #1,245,633 in 1917.(2) He partnered with Nihei Otani to form the Nippon Typewriter Company in May, 1917, manufacturing their first typewriters that same year. This example in the History San José collection is serial number 12-55833 and is identified on the data plate as being manufactured in year 12 of the Emperor Taisho Era (1923 in the Western calendar). This typewriter exactly matches the patent drawings, but later models, starting in 1927, had longer paper cylinders and larger bells, along with other cosmetic differences. The Nippon Typewriter Co. is now part of Canon, Inc.(3)

Sugimoto PatentThe letter tray, which Sugimoto called a “type-nest” in the patent application, is an array of 70 X 35 cells. Each cell holds a metal letterpress-style type, for a total of 2450 characters. Fifty characters were used for numbers, punctuation, etc. and the 2400 remaining Kanji characters satisfied most business requirements, even though the Japanese language uses over 100,000 unique characters. Knowledge of about 2400 characters is required for a high school diploma in Japan, so this is a reasonable compromise for this typewriter.

The paper cylinder and typing mechanism are on ball-bearing rollers, forming a very complex mechanical marvel. Using a Bakelite knob, the operator can move this mechanism left to right or up and down above the type-nest and position the striker over the selected character.

Japanese typewriter close-up

Pressing down on the knob causes a pin under the type-nest to push up the selected type block, which is grasped by the striker from above. The striker rotates the type block 90 degrees over a small ink wheel and then strikes the paper. The striker then returns to its original position, dropping the type block back into the type-nest. This blur of activity is hard to see since it is completed in a fraction of a second. The striker can move left and right, but cannot reach the rightmost and leftmost columns of type. The striker reaches those extreme right and left columns by moving the type-nest, which is also on rollers, to the left or right.

The typewriter prints in the expected Japanese style of top to bottom and right to left. So, after typing a character, the paper cylinder rotates so the next character will be printed below the previous character. The 4-inch-diameter paper cylinder allows for up to a 12-inch long and 9-inch wide paper to be inserted. As the typing approaches the bottom of the page, a bell rings, alerting the user to the end of that column of print. A lever can then be pulled to move the paper to a new column, which will cause this column to print to the left of the previous column. A setting allows for the columns to be 2, 3 or 4 spaces apart.

The Nippon typewriter was originally priced at 180 yen, which in today’s exchange rate equates to about $1.80, but in 1917 the exchange rate made it equivalent to $90. Comparing values spanning a century and a continent is not exact, but based on inflation, the $90 in 1917 is equal to about $1700 today. The operators of this typewriter were highly skilled and well-paid. Typing on the Japanese typewriter is much slower than an English language typewriter, but was considered equivalent when comparing the speed of putting ideas on paper.

The Nippon typewriter was the Japanese standard for typewriter design until the introduction of the word processor, which was first adapted to the Japanese language in 1978.

The Restoration Project

Japanese typewriter before restoration

Before restoration

The History San José Nippon typewriter consists of a complete Nippon typewriter with a filled type-nest; a spare, empty type-nest; and a wood box containing the type blocks to populate another complete type-nest. The typewriter was in poor cosmetic condition, with considerable rust, pitting, and flaking paint on the base. One type-nest contained type blocks frozen in place and considerable rust on the frame. The spare type-nest was empty but also had considerable rust on the frame and some bent tines, which held the type blocks in place. The type-blocks in the wooden box were in excellent condition, but the box itself was split on the top and warped, and the metal hinges and latches were rusted.

The base was the easiest to restore, so that was my starting point. I noticed that 2 of the 4 rollers on the base (used to roll the type-nest left or right so the striker can reach the rightmost and leftmost characters) had ball bearings. Also two of the four rollers in the typing mechanism had ball bearings. It was apparent that the four ball-bearing rollers were originally on the typing mechanism and the base used the four non-ball bearing rollers. The type-nest is extremely heavy and does not need the ball-bearing rollers.

I used #0000 steel wool to clean up the rust and 90+ years of black sludge from the base. I removed the four Bakelite feet and cleaned and oiled the built-in bolts. They looked brand new after this cleaning, prompting me to go back to the original patent drawings and some pictures on the internet to verify these were the original feet. I also cleaned the brass data plate, being careful to leave the patina but removing the green and some black tarnish. The rollers were cleaned and greased. The screws and washers holding the rollers required #400 sandpaper to remove the rust, then steel wool to buff the surfaces.

The main typing mechanism was in relatively good condition, but also suffered from a buildup of gunk and some rust. I took the mechanism completely apart in sections. That is, I would remove a section and clean it and then re-assemble that section. The rubber on the paper cylinder was crackled but cleaned up nicely. The most amazing result was to find that the main supporting bars were made of brass, which was hidden by the black gunk! Cleaning off the black gunk revealed thick brass with a beautiful patina and some etched designs. I also put some ink on the ink wheel.

I did not attempt to restore the type-nest containing the type blocks frozen in place. Trying to remove any of the type blocks resulted in the blocks shattering to pieces. The spare, empty type-nest was sanded and then buffed with steel wool to remove the considerable rust on the frame. The tines were straightened and then the tedious cleaning of each of the 2450 cells was accomplished with cotton swabs and toothpicks. The pristine type blocks from the wood case were used to populate this type-nest.

The wood box was dis-assembled and all the metal parts were sanded and buffed with steel wool. The lid was cracked along the length of the rear support slat, so this was glued and clamped. Also, the lid was warped, so I put linseed oil on it and then placed it under some heavy books. Some varnish was rubbed off, so this was treated with linseed oil also.

Typewriter after restoration

After restoration

After all this restoration, the typing mechanism worked well. There are very few adjustments built in to the typewriter. The springs were weak and did not always allow the paper cylinder to advance after typing a character, but stretching the springs gave them new life and it all seemed to work correctly.

To operate this typewriter, the first task is to find the correct character, which is extremely small and many characters look very similar. Then the typing mechanism must be moved very precisely over that character, which may require moving the type-nest as well as the typing mechanism. A quick, forceful downward press on the knob is required to get a consistent quality character on the paper. After typing out a few characters, I had a better understanding and admiration for the skill of the original operators of this machine.

About the Author

Ralph Simpson is a volunteer at History San José, assisting in the research and documentation of the museum’s early electronics collection. He retired after 32 years in the computer and networking industry, working for IBM and Cisco Systems. He is also an avid collector of cipher machines, which are displayed on his website, CipherMachines.com.

Bibliography

(1) Japan Patent Office. “Ten Japanese Great Inventors” (http://jpo.go.jp/seido_e/rekishi_e/judaie.htm).
(2) United States Patent and Trademark Office. Patent #1,245,633 (http://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?docid=01245633&SectionNum=1&IDKey=6C540A8C9384&HomeUrl=http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1%2526Sect2=HITOFF%2526d=PALL%2526p=1%2526u=%25252Fnetahtml%25252FPTO%25252Fsrchnum.htm%2526r=1%2526f=G%2526l=50%2526s1=1245633.PN.%2526OS=PN/1245633%2526RS=PN/1245633).
(3) Messinger, Robert. “The Wonderful World of Typewriters” (http://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/2011/05/bull-to-brother-82-years-of-japanese.html).

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