1890 - 1895
The Burns Typewriter Co.
Buffalo, New York US
Frank Burns (1862 - 1937), the inventor of the Burns typewriter, and the investors of The Burns Typewriter Company were quite sure that their machine was going to be a huge commercial success. This is evident by the "No.1" designation on the paper table in obvious anticipation of future models. Unfortunately a Burns No.2 was never produced. The typewriter that took several years to develop, which was patented on August 27, 1889 (patent no.409.914) and for which a factory was established, was ultimately given up on. The inventor moved on, as did the investors, and the factory began producing other items.
The Burns Typewriter Company was incorporated in 1890. To raise much needed capital the company offered 1,000 shares at $100 each. An 1893 periodical mentioned that in the latter part of that year a factory in an already existing building at 17 Gull Street in Buffalo, New York was set up "...for the purpose of manufacturing the Burns typewriter..." That building was originally erected ca.1885. It housed jewelry box maker Weisbauer Manufacturing before The Burns Typewriter Company and the Curtis Screw Company afterwards.
Until at least January 4, 1901, The Burns Typewriter Company also rented a fifth floor space in the Howard building, which was one of the Holland & Howard Office Buildings on Washington Street. On that January day the buildings caught fire which caused nearly $130,000 in damages. It seems the company may have then taken up office space on South Division Street as a result.
In that same periodical that I mentioned earlier it states that the Burns was a "...machine that will be similar in many ways to standard makes." This somewhat lackluster review was actually verbatim of the 1890 announcement of the company's incorporation. Most often the Burns is compared to the Smith-Premier No.1 and it's been speculated that failure of the Burns was a result of the two typewriters' striking similarities. Both machines had upstrike typebar arrangements, double keyboards, ornate Art Nouveau panels, similar silhouettes and both inked via an extra wide ribbon that zig-zagged back and forth. Furthermore, the Burns also employed a typebar alignment plate like that of Yost typewriters but with a round hole (Yost's were square). Uniquely, the Burns had a slotted type segment as well as individually hung typebars. All these alignment mechanisms may have seemed like overkill but they worked rather well. The type sample seen here was produced on my Burns in 2014. Not bad for a 120 year old machine.
Personally, I'm quite skeptical about any typewriters having been built at the Gull Street factory. From a March 1893 interview between The Buffalo Courier and The Burns Typewriter Company's president, Charles Lee Abell (1856 - 1920) it is mentioned that no factory location has yet been selected but "...a number of models have [already] been constructed in the old Francis Axe building, No.436 Niagara Street." Mr. Abell anticipated employing 100 mechanics to turn out 3,000 typewriters annually once a factory was set up. Also, at the time of the interview, The Burns Typewriter Company was spending $15,000 on "special tools" to be produced in a "sewing machine factory in Plattsburg..." and that "...the same company may possibly make [the] first 1000 machines." It appears that the Burns factory may never have been properly outfitted for typewriter production. The most interesting tidbit from this article was the following: "We will make another machine, our No.2, that will have some patented features of some merit..." To this day that claim cannot be verified.
With no marketing available to suggest any real production, it is widely believed that all of the Burns typewriters were produced between 1894 - 95 and no more than working prototypes. After abandoning the typewriter, the company began to produce metal goods instead until 1942, including typewriter parts for other makers.
Charles Lee Abell
So what ever happened to The Burns Typewriter Company and that Gull Street factory? From what I've gathered it seems that the company and the name were retained by C. Lee Abell. It produced items other than typewriters at that location until about 1905 when the Curtis Screw Company moved in. Those items included typebars, typewheels, stamps and dies, tooling and even a blanket buckle that Frank Burns invented. In 1903 The Burns Typewriter Company also developed an experimental automobile with a gasoline powered combustion engine.
Enter George M. Howe, manager of The Burns Typewriter Company who, in 1952, writes a piece about Frank Burns with a Burns typewriter, no less. This helps flesh out the early years of the company and why the typewriter never made it to market.
Howe writes that Frank Burns approached Charles L. Abell for the needed funds. Abell was already an established insurance man. At about the same time in 1890 that the company was incorporated Mr. Abell "...purchased and installed [machinery] in a loft building in Buffalo" (the old Francis Axe Mfg Co?) and by 1893 a working model was completed. Mr. Howe also writes that a fellow named J.D. Mallonee had a factory in Stockton, NY that produced steel type. That factory was purchased by The Burns Typewriter Company and all the Burns machinery was then moved to Stockton, but not for long, as Mr. Howe points out, "...it being impossible to get the help needed [in Stockton]." In 1895 everything was again moved, this time back to Buffalo to the new Gull Street location. J.D. Mallonee stayed on as supervisor until he "overlooked a defect in the construction of the typewriter" which caused a delay in production. Mallonee then "resigned."
By the time Mallonee resigned and all the delays were dealt with, visible typewriters were becoming the trend. In fact, Mr. Howe writes that the Burns typewriter was a failure because it was a blindwriter; the wrong typewriter at the wrong time. Though it should be stated that new blindwriters were still being produced at the time, albeit only those produced by established companies like Remington had any real success. The few Burns that were made were given to Mr. Adell's associates in Buffalo to test. Howe also mentions that the Burns he used to write the biography (serial no.11) was the "last improved model" and it has been used daily for 50 years until it was donated to the Buffalo Historical Society on behalf of himself, Frank Burns and the Charles Lee Abell estate.
Let's now examine Frank Burns, a prolific and mysterious inventor. He was born in Perrysburg, New York and moved to Westfield as a teenager to work with his brother. He eventually settled there and in time considered it his hometown. Frank's interest in typewriters was piqued when he was first exposed to the Sholes & Glidden and, according to both typewriter enthusiast Darryl Rehr and biographer G.M. Howe, Frank invented an index typewriter (before The Burns). It had a patent assigned to Louis T. Weiss (patent no.438,665). The index typewriter was a failure and, when The Burns typewriter failed to go into production, Frank was disillusioned and never again attempted to make another writing machine. Instead he kept inventing items for other industries. Frank never married, never had any children, no one knows what he looked like and he died alone in Westfield at the age of 74. Based on Howe's biography and Frank's own obituary, Frank was a well liked man.
Frank's other inventions included a bottle stopper, a grape basket wire handle, an automobile, a blanket buckle, an air pistol, an ammunition box and a vaporizer. Most of these items were produced while others Frank wouldn't sell the rights to because he felt the offers he received were too low. He produced the ammunition box with his own money during WWI believing he was going to get reimbursed by Uncle Sam. He did not.
Lastly, I also came across a 1925 Westfield newspaper ad in which Frank Burns, then 63, was seemingly back in the typewriter business as a repairman. I get the impression Frank left this world feeling like he never contributed anything of value. How sad.