Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

When is an Office Like a Music Hall?

April 30, 2012 Archive Insight

When the typewriter is a player piano.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, modern office culture was taking off and work was speeding up. To stay competitive, businesses needed to pick up the pace.


Office equipment manufacturers developed machines to allow clerical work to go faster. Automatic typewriters, just like player pianos, used punched rolls of paper — in this case, to speed up clerical work by producing multiple form letters at once.

Henry Ford and Edsel Ford at a player piano during a camping trip, July 1921. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)

Automatic typewriters generally worked as follows:  A letter was written on one typewriter, the perforator, which encoded the letter onto a punched paper roll. The punch roll was fed into a reader typewriter, which reproduced the original. An operator would be standing by to fill in specific information (such as name and date) and to remove finished letters.


This Auto-Typist pneumatic automatic typewriter was manufactured by a Chicago player piano company in the1930s and used a player piano pneumatic mechanism to make offices more efficient.


Each key of the specially-prepared Underwood typewriter is hooked up to a small bellows. The encoded paper roll is fed into the Auto-Typist, and each punch on the paper roll directs specific bellows to move. The Auto-Typist allowed small business owners, like the Chicago doctor who probably used this machine, to quickly produce personalized form letters.


Auto-Typists continued to be manufactured even after World War II and into the era of business computing. In the 1960s, an insurance company automated their policy-writing department with Auto-Typists hooked up to IBM electrics.


Suzanne Fischer is former Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford.

20th century, 1930s, technology, correspondence, communication, by Suzanne Fischer

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