Making music on a typewriter

Making music on a typewriter
The Library has a music typewriter
16 June 2014

At the Canberra Zine Emporium (CZE) Fire up the carousel event back in March, I had the pleasure of chatting to Robert Messenger of the Australian Typewriter Museum. The conversation was about typewriters (of course!) and Robert mentioned that the National Library of Australia is one of the few collecting institutions in the world to have a music typewriter.

I had absolutely no idea what a music typewriter was, let alone that the Library had one in the collection. Naturally I was intrigued and when I got back to work the following week, the hunt for the mysterious music typewriter was on.

First things first, I had to find out exactly what a music typewriter is. The short explanation: a typewriter that can type music notation.

In my internet travels, I came across the fascinating Music Printing History website, which gives the following:

Music typewriters were developed in the 19th century, but it wasn't until the mid 1900s that they became popular. Musicians usually specialized in using these machines. Several different models were invented, but there were two different concepts that became standard. The Keaton Music Typewriter looked very different from a regular typewriter. It had two keyboards, one which was moveable and one stationary. The other models were much like a regular typewriter. They employed musical symbols instead of letters. Staff paper or blank paper was slipped in the carriage and the keys struck. After the music was printed on a music typewriter, the original was photographed or copied to make the extra copies necessary to distribute and sell. 

To track our music typewriter down, I entered music typewriter into the Library catalogue. Results came back with 38 records varying from sheet music called The Typewriter, to a David Malouf novel called Typewriter music. Narrowing the search, I entered ‘music typewriter’ as a phrase, and obtained two results.

The first result was Papers of Michael Wade, 1947-2003 [manuscript] which on the surface seemed unlikely, but upon viewing the full catalogue record I discovered that yes indeed, we have a music typewriter in our collection.

Olympia Musicwriter

The typewriter was donated as part of the manuscript papers of Australian musician and composer Michael Wade, and it is revealed in the catalogue record as + 1 music typewriter  in the description, and also as music typewriter in the summary note detailing the contents of the collection.

The Michael Wade papers have access restrictions, however our colleagues in the Pictures and Manuscripts Branch agreed that as the typewriter is not subject to copyright, I could finally see it in all its metallic and plastic glory.

During my hunt for the typewriter, nearly every other librarian I spoke to was intrigued and wanted to see it too, so I arranged for a group viewing with Library staff and Robert Messenger. Everyone was so enthusiastic, that when Pictures and Manuscripts librarian Catriona revealed the typewriter, I was vividly reminded of a pack of puppies at feeding time.

Despite being told not to press the buttons, some people just couldn’t help themselves (shhh, don’t tell Preservation), so I am happy to report that the music typewriter appears to be in working order.

Music typewriter in action.

Still working 30+ years later.

Sheet music typed by the Olympia Musicwriter.

Sample of sheet music typed by the Olympia Musicwriter.

Olympia Musicwriter keyboard.

Our music typewriter is the Olympia Musicwriter, patented by Cecil Effinger in 1954, and this particular model is very likely from the late 1970s/early 1980s.

It uses carbon ribbon, and is extremely heavy – we guesstimate its weight at around 20kgs.

To use the Musicwriter correctly would be like learning to play a musical instrument.

Musicwriter patent lable.


The inner workings of the Olympia Musicwriter.

 The inner workings.

Although music typewriters have long been rendered obsolete by computers, they are such a fascinating piece of music and technology history, I’m glad I went digging through our collection for this piece of buried treasure.

Olympia Musicwriter with the cover removed.

With the cover removed.

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