The Oliver Typewriter

Thomas Oliver & Company History

Thomas Oliver
Reverend Thomas Oliver (photo now owned by great-grandson Lester Oliver).

Thomas Oliver was born in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada on August 1st, 1852. His father was Scottish immigrant Adam Oliver (1823-1911) and his mother was Canadian-born Jane Speirs (1830-1870s). In his youth, Thomas Oliver grew up on a farm, where he would tinker and build various devices such as windmills and threshing machines with only basic tools on the farm. His inventive mindset often caused his family woe. One morning, his mother was searching for the copper tea kettle, only to discover that it was pounded, reshaped and being used as a steam engine boiler.

On May 27th, 1874, Oliver married Mary Ann Eddy in Paris, Ontario, Canada. The following year on April 11th, their first child, Mary Alvira was born. On September 23rd, 1878, their second child, Judson Adam was born.

Thomas Oliver
Thomas Oliver, published in The Des Moines Register - March 1st, 1908.

In 1879, following the death of Oliver’s mother, the Oliver family relocated to the United States where Thomas Oliver found himself serving as a Methodist Circuit Rider for the Upper Iowa Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Reverend Oliver’s first sermon was preached in October 1879 in Lansing, Iowa. Oliver and his family were residing on Fifth Street in Lansing as of June 1880. Reverend Oliver frequently travelled to other cities in his circuit to preach, including Staceyville, Mitchell, Ridgeway, Dyersville, DeWitt, and Central City.

Reverend Oliver always carried a personal bible with him and documented his sermons in the index. These records include the sermon title, the scripture from which it came, the date, and the town in which it was given. In 1889, he replaced his bible because his first one was worn from hard use. His second bible survives today, in which his sermon records date to when he first started preaching. This indicates the records were copied over from the original bible. In total, 173 entries are listed with the latest dating to August 28th, 1892.

Thomas Oliver's bible Thomas Oliver's bible Thomas Oliver's bible index - first page
Thomas Oliver's second bible from 1889 shows considerable wear. On the flyleaf, he wrote "Thomas Oliver", "Upper Iowa Conference", and "1889". The index was used by Oliver to record his sermon preachings. The first of of four pages of his records is shown.

In 1889, during his preaching travels, Reverend Oliver was sitting at a bank in DeWitt. It was there he saw a stenographer using a typewriter and observed its inefficiency, since the typist could not see what was being typed. He did not even examine the machine because its mechanics seemed to be so crude and upside-down to him. Oliver set out to create a better machine with visible writing so that his sermons could be typewritten. Oliver created a couple prototypes by utilizing drawings, wire devices, and overall crude and simple materials. It is said his prototypes were made from tin can strips and rubber. These prototypes did not feature the famous downstrike typebars; instead it had the typebars arranged in a pivoting arc with a hammer mounted to strike them against the platen. This design also featured an ink roller instead of an ink ribbon.

In order to fund patents for his typewriter, Thomas Oliver visited a personal friend and dental surgeon in Dubuque, Dr. Charles J. Peterson. Oliver requested a $600 loan and in return, Dr. Peterson would receive $1 on the $3 royalty from each machine sold, while Oliver received a $2 royalty. Dr. Peterson readily accepted the offer, and on August 26th, 1890, while residing in Monticello, Oliver filed his first typewriter patent. This patent was for the pivoting typebar arc design. It denotes Dr. Peterson as a one-third assignee.

However, this typebar design must not have been ideal, as Oliver continued to search for a better alternative. It is said that Oliver came up with the downstrike type bar design while he was in his study reading a book on machinery. He fell asleep in his chair and awoke shortly after, jumping and shouting “Eureka” to his wife as he began to sketch a U-shaped type bar he saw in his dreams. He went to Dubuque to get old watch and clock springs to make the type bars for a prototype model. Oliver then spent months perfecting the new downstrike mechanism prototype. On September 12th, 1892, while residing in State Centre, Oliver filed his second typewriter patent featuring the famous downstrike type bars. This patent was also funded by Dr. Peterson, as he was a one-third assignee just like Oliver’s first typewriter patent.

Once Oliver was satisfied with downstrike prototype, he boxed it up in a wooden case and took it to Dubuque to put it on exhibition in the Noyes art store. Large crowds gathered, as the value of the machine was exemplified. It is said that he offered several parties a one-fourth interest in the patent for $500 during the exhibition, but no one secured a deal. However, Oliver secured funds to further his typewriter endeavor a couple of days later.

By this time, Oliver was residing in Epworth, where he was building machines in the upstairs of his residence, a building that later became the People’s bakery. The bases of the machines were cast by the Adams foundry while other parts were furnished by more local industries. His first machines were sold to his ministerial friends, who were still using them as of December 1901. On September 19th, 1893, Oliver filed his second typewriter patent that featured the downstrike type bars. The machine of this patent features the final shape of the Oliver No. 1 base and includes ribbon spools.

Thomas Oliver's house in Epworth, Iowa
Thomas Oliver's home In Epworth, Iowa where the Oliver No. 1 was first built.

In 1894, to increase production, a two-story brick factory building was constructed by Zephaniah Kidder (1822-1897) just north of the IC railroad tracks in Epworth on Center Avenue. Kidder was one of three men who helped lay out the town of Epworth on portions of their holdings. To fund the factory, shares were sold in the new typewriter firm, and with each share sold, the purchaser was given a lot in the north part of town, a deal presumably organized by Kidder. The Oliver typewriter company eventually grew to be a stock company with $20,000 of capital which was used to fund the business operations. It is estimated that the Epworth factory employed anywhere from 20 to 35 people. One of the typewriter company’s travelling salesmen who sold Oliver typewriters in Iowa was William Henry Kidder (1876-1950), a son of Zephaniah Kidder. It is believed the first 100 or so machines made at the factory had flaws, and the company nearly went broke making things right for the customers.

Epworth Factory
This brick building was built in 1894 to manufacture the Oliver No. 1 typewriter. As the image suggests, the Iowa Light Company occupied the building once the Oliver Typewriter Company relocated to Woodstock, Illinois.

Despite the setbacks, Oliver wanted to further increase production. Soon after, Thomas Oliver and the stockholders had some disagreements. It is said that Dr. Peterson sold out his share for several thousand dollars some years after funding the patents, and the buyer made a fortune off of the royalties to come.

Thomas Oliver
Reverend Thomas Oliver.

In the Fall of 1895, many capitalists from Chicago began investing in the small company. Notable investors include Granger Farwell, James Viles, Jr., Delevan Smith, William Waller, James S. Harlan, Douglas Smith, R. S. Peale, Bennett B. Botsworth, and Lawrence Williams, John Villiers “Dutch” Farwell, and newspaper publisher Herman Henry Kohlsaat. On September 18th, 1895, Thomas Oliver and Douglas Smith went to a regular meeting of the Racine Business Men’s association in Racine, Wisconsin to try and form a stock company there to manufacture the Oliver machines. They presented the machine and all if its advantages to everyone in attendance and the feedback was very positive. Oliver and Smith explained that they wanted to relocate to Wisconsin because of the availability of skilled mechanics.

On October 15th, 1895, the committee met again at Hotel Racine to discuss forming a company there to manufacture the Oliver machines. Thomas Oliver again showed the machine to anyone who was interested at the hotel. Two days later at the next meeting, the committee presented the report directed towards Thomas Oliver and Douglas Smith, another investor from Chicago. The committee reported that they are in favor of a typewriter factory in Racine. They believe the machine was superior to all other typewriters on the market at the time and congratulated Thomas Oliver on his invention. The report proposed the people of Racine subscribe and pay for $50,000 of capital stock of the company to be organized. Thomas Oliver and other stockholders would have to turn over the patents and good will for $125,000 of the new company’s capital stock. $25,000 of this stock was to be spent as needed by the company. Thomas Oliver would receive a $3 royalty on each machine manufactured and sold.

By December 6th, 1895, the Wisconsin capitalists formed a plan rebuild the Scotford plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin (just south of Racine) to use as the Oliver factory. The factory would have been two stories tall, 12,000 square feet, and have a 50-horsepower boiler and engine. Initially, 50 skilled mechanics would have been employed with more to come in the near future. Operation was to begin the following spring. This project was to cost $10,000. A capitalist named Z. G. Simmons was funding $6,000 and $3,700 was to be funded by the citizens of Kenosha. Only the remaining $300 stood in the way of securing the deal.

Before officially closing on the Wisconsin deal, Thomas Oliver and one of his workmen named Charles Fay went to Woodstock, Illinois to seek out one more potential relocation opportunity. Back in 1893, in order to attract more industry to the city of Woodstock, an 80-by-200-foot brick factory was built on a 12-acre lot with $15,000 of capital raised by Woodstock residents for the Wheeler & Tappan Pump Co., a steam pump manufacturer. Unfortunately, the Wheeler & Tappan Pump Co. only lasted two years. In order to fill the empty factory and bring another major business into the area, a deal was offered to the Oliver Typewriter Company by the Woodstock Public Improvement Association. If Oliver stayed in Woodstock for at least five years, the deed to the factory would be donated to the company. Naturally, Oliver accepted this offer, and the Kenosha relocation plan was forgotten.

On December 29th, 1895, the Oliver Typewriter Company was incorporated by Lawrence Williams, Douglas Smith, and Samuel Adams Lynde as new stock company with $200,000 of capital. The company’s office was relocated to Chicago in small room on the ninth floor of an office building. On January 9th, 1896, the Woodstock Public Improvement Association announced that Oliver would be relocating his factory to Woodstock. On January 14th, the Oliver Typewriter Company took possession of the factory, and on January 16, a few cars shipped the factory’s machinery from the brick building in Epworth to the new factory. Once Oliver abandoned the Epworth factory building, the factory was reutilized by a variety of businesses. The Iowa Light Co. occupied the building for a while. It was also used for farmers’ short courses offered by the State University of Iowa. It was also used as a chicken-processing plant. At one point, it was purchased by a Mr. Keagy of Independence, Iowa. It was used by Hutnin Anderston of Earlville, Iowa as a creamery until it burned down. A new building was then rebuilt on the same site, and it remained a creamery.

Operations in Woodstock were originally set to begin two weeks after the relocation of the machinery but ended up taking two months to finish retrofitting the factory. By mid-May, orders were being taken by E.S. Sprague and machines were shipped by August. When the Woodstock factory first opened, 80 workers were employed. Within five years, that number rose to over 200. When the factory first opened, it took eight months for the first 100 machines to be built. This production averages to just over 1.8 machines per day. In 1897, the production was averaging 6.2 machines per day. One year later, they were producing 30 machines per day. By 1901, it was up to 40 machines per day, and kept growing to keep up with demand. In fact, workers sometimes worked into the evenings three or four days a week to keep up production and continually improve the Oliver. The company’s capital stock was soon up to $350,000, much of which was held be the citizens of the area. The general offices at this time had 36 employees and 20 travelling salesmen.

Only 12 years after production ended, the Oliver No. 1 machines made in Epworth were scarcely found. Only a few machines’ locations have been mentioned in newspaper articles of the era. A prototype featuring the downstrike typebars was put on display in a window of the Oliver Typewriter Company offices in Chicago. The 59th Oliver No. 1 built was purchased by Ida McLevan Cutler, the principal of the Cutler Business Training School of Dubuque. She acquired it from a former stockholder of the Oliver Typewriter Company. Although it was purchased primarily for display, it was still fully operational in 1908. The 115th Oliver No. 1 was owned by James A. Edwards, of Epworth, a personal friend of Oliver.

Thomas Oliver
Thomas Oliver's photo from an obituary.