.Davis Typewriter Works

.Davis Typewriter Works

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Burroughs Standard Typewriter - A Second Look

• Introduction.  Woodstock, Illinois -- the date, March, 1927.  A large adding machine company approaches the Chamber of Commerce of the city to inquire about the purchase of the long dormant Oliver Typewriter Co. factory, with the intent of acquiring all patents and rights as well as the facility for the purpose of placing the typewriter back in production.  The Woodstock Sesquicentennial's notes, from which this report comes, do not mention the adding machine company by name (it was apparently not revealed at the time).  The deal does not go through; in February 1928 the factory is instead sold to Alemite Die Casting and Manufacturing Company of Chicago.  An adding machine company wishing to produce typewriters?  It wouldn't have been the first time (American Can took control of Rex Typewriter's sales in 1918, for a brief season) and having a full office machine line in one house was something the industry was realizing was the way of the future.

The date of inquiry is curiously timed with the March 1927 effective date of the merger of Remington Typewriter with Rand-Kardex-Bureau which created the giant Remington-Rand Corporation, with both typewriters and adding machines under the same roof (as well as many other items).  L.C. Smith & Brothers bought and merged Corona Typewriter Company in 1926, creating another powerhouse.  Merger season was on; later, in 1934, L.C. Smith & Corona would buy and merge the Portable Adding Machine Company.

Within four years of the aforementioned Oliver factory inquiry the long-established Burroughs Adding Machine Company would place on the market a four-bank, standard office typewriter in the $100 class intended to be competitive with all others on the market.  Was this inquiry made on behalf of Burroughs?  We do not know at this date, and might never.  It's an interesting prelude to an established story. 


We first wrote about the Burroughs standard machine in great detail in the December 2006 issue of ETCetera, as well as on a 2006 page on my old site on GeoCities (presently dormant as of early 2015.)  I decided it's time to revisit that content and put the story we first told eight years ago back into available print, but with new insight, details, and illustrations.  Although some of these have appeared on my sites before (and some of our old site's illustrations and much of its written content have been copied by others) the content you see here is constructed new for this page.


Burroughs Adding Machine Company entered the typewriter market in 1931 with a machine it described as being completely new, with a variety of superior points to other machines on the market and made specific the point that the company was not saddled with having to update an old design to meet present market requirements.  While this might seem an advantage, 1931 was indeed a rather late date to break into the highly competitive US standard office machine market with a totally new design when the field was dominated by well established makes Royal, Underwood, L.C. Smith & Corona, Remington-Rand and Woodstock.  (There were a couple other makes on the market such as Smith Premier and Demountable, but these were not major players.)  The way the market was developing, however, pointed toward the ability of a manufacturer to more or less make captive its customer by selling that customer all of its office machines or even those plus many major office supplies.  This trend continued long after the Burroughs story began; in 1949, R. C. Allen would buy out Woodstock Typewriter to do the same thing, and about a decade later Cole Steel Office Equipment would begin selling typewriters, adding machines and dictaphones to compliment its long-standing line of office furniture. Eventually in the 1960's conglomerate corporations such as Smith-Corona-Marchant and Litton Industries would offer wide ranges of office equipment and material.  Suffice it to say, Burroughs' estimation of the market demand (or perhaps marketing opportunity) was right on the mark and not so early in time that the idea would have seemed overly novel.

Let us use Burroughs' own sales material to present the machine to you.  Below we reproduce much of the 1933 sales brochure on hand, in order.  Click the pages to enlarge them and read about the various design features of this then-new standard machine.  Your eyes do not deceive you - this Depression Era booklet is NOT printed level to the pages or consistent throughout.

The next several pages are incentives as to why you should trust Burroughs, who advertises its "Half a century's experience in building precision machines" on page 16.  In part the text notes

"To maintain its leadership Burroughs has been alert to the ever-changing requirements of business, as well as to the newest manufacturing processes and methods.  Many of the principles of construction which have proved so efficient in Burroughs figuring machines and typewriter accounting and billing machines are utilized in the Burroughs Typewriter."

Page 17 notes the World-Wide Service available, and notes the one year guarantee of free inspections and service of the machine - which could be extended after the first year "at nominal cost to the user" by the Burroughs Service Agreement.  This Service Agreement "provides for regular inspections, cleaning, oiling and adjustments, which prolong the life and efficient use of the equipment."

The back page shows the other general model then available - the Burroughs Electric Carriage Typewriter.  See below.

Burroughs Typewriters Examined.

As was first revealed to collectors by us in 2006, the Burroughs machines had internally used model numbers or codes which delineated them.  In the general range of Burroughs machine products the typewriters were lumped together as "Series T" machines.  The all manual typewriter, which is the subject of 99% of the brochure you've just read, was the "Series T type 50" and the electric carriage machine was the "Series T type 60."  The type number was altered for specific machines when the carriage was increased above the standard width.

...{We're primarily interested here with the manual standard machine, but first a note about the electric.  Note the description in the brochure -- the only power operated features are carriage return (the return key is where the right shift lock key normally would have been), line space advance and carriage (case) shift.  The type bars remained manually operated.  Thus, it's important for historians and collectors to realize that the Burroughs electric was, really and properly the "Burroughs Electric Carriage" machine and was only semi-electrified as was the early Woodstock Electrite, the much later Smith-Corona 5T portable and others.}...

In operation, the Burroughs manual is adequate if uninspired.  The specific design of the key lever and type bar mechanism doesn't lend to either a snappy or rapid feel, although an experienced typist could certainly adapt to this machine with no problem... and that's one of the things that helped this machine stick around for about a decade.  It's not a BAD typewriter, but rather it's quite run of the mill in terms of use.  In fact one gets the impression that everything on it is the average of the impressions of every other typewriter on the market.  Having said that, here are a few observations.

• The machine is quite late as an overall design to incorporate carriage shift, although the shift is fairly light.

• The tab stops are visible by the typist when seated above the paper table.  This feature was not in itself new (for example, the Visigraph had that 20 years earlier) but is considered convenient by some.

• The brochure notes that "all scales are alike."  This seems to be a shot at Underwood who had a reversed scale on its front frame bar, or at machines whose tab stop racks were not exactly in line with their actual carriage spacing (of this latter group, we just showed on Youtube a machine where this is actually the case - the Imperial 50 - but didn't point out that slightly annoying feature.)

• The machine is full of design features that are "best available."  In other words, it was extremely important that Burroughs have competitive features (like, say, variable line spacing) but not infringe on any patents of any manufacturer in business.  Thus, one might say that by the time this machine appeared most of the best ideas to accomplish certain things were already taken and Burroughs had to plow the fields that were left open.  Dan Supek, veteran typewriter repairman, clearly described this to us point by point years back when comparing, with us, the Burroughs and a number of other machines in the shop.  The comparison isn't hard to make yourself either if the Burroughs is in a room full of typewriters!

We obtained a good deal of operating experience with the machine you see below, which was completely disassembled, tanked, and adjusted prior to the testing.

Burroughs Standard Typewriter serial 51A 80724, Davis Bros. collection
The experience with this typewriter was, on our part, uninspiring.  The machine does not rank above the bottom third of all standard manual machines in the quality of touch, or response to speed.  However, it is also neither overly delicate or underbuilt.

The Burroughs (as explained in thorough detail in my December 2006 ETCetera article) was like many adding machines, and many much later typewriters in using a set of stampings as its structural frame instead of one or more large, heavy castings.  Certainly this meant that Burroughs did not have to add a large casting plant to its factory; it also meant that methods of assembly could be carried over from stamped frame figuring machines.  The exterior that one sees on the machine is simply an exterior "mask" comprised of multiple pieces, which was actually given a design patent in 1931.

This was a bit early for this feature in standard typewriters, actually - and in this one regard Burroughs might be regarded as innovative.  As two major examples, Royal and Remington-Rand did not change to such construction until around 1938-1939, with Woodstock following shortly (the Woodstock machine was even completely open sided until right around the time the Burroughs appeared).  The advantages of this style of construction are obvious, with the cost and complexity of casting operations being completely avoided.

We also have as a "control group" the completely unrebuilt Burroughs manual standard seen below.

Burroughs Standard Typewriter serial 51A 261068, Will Davis collection
The typewriter above, like that shown earlier, has a wide carriage.  However it also adds a decimal tabulator and palm tabulator - both mentioned on page 13 of the brochure.  The only extra cost option this machine lacks is the stroke (type) counter.

In short, were a professional typist to come to work one Monday and find the previous make and model of typewriter replaced with the Burroughs, the short period of upset would not have been too disastrous and soon the typist would be able to turn out a lot of work... but my impression is that few would ever actually LIKE the machine.  It does the job, but it does not make you enjoy doing it.


We've been able to find very little about the machines in terms of factory information.  We know that the War Production Board took control of Burroughs' production in 1942 and believe that typewriter manufacture was terminated at that point, although the statements of a couple of Second World War Veterans to Your Typewriter & Computer's Dan Supek have given us a hint that a number of Burroughs machines were in use by the military during that war.  Whatever the case, the machines did not reappear as part of Burroughs' line post-war, limiting their production to roughly a decade.  We do not have any serial number data for the machines.

What interests me most about this whole affair is the first part -- that in 1927, someone approached Oliver about buying their factory.  When that didn't go through, what did that company do?  If that was Burroughs, it did what my guess is:  It went to work designing its own typewriter from the ground up, which explains the time interval required for the machine to appear on the market.  Speculation?  Absolutely.  But interesting speculation nonetheless.

Burroughs Adding Machine plant circa 1933
Note:  All materials and machines pictured in this post are actually in our collection.  The Burroughs sales brochure we have first appeared anywhere online in 2006 on our site. 

4 PM 1/24/2015

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Addendum:  1/25/2015

Peter Weil, long time friend of ours, of this blog and of our previous websites has sent along some scans of original Burroughs materials actually in his collection, with the express purpose that they be shown here.  The materials and my comments follow below.

Above, we have a wonderful and bright ink blotter showing the "New Burroughs Standard Typewriter."  This piece contrasts with some others in not emphasizing the "Quiet" nature of the machine.  We can tell immediately that this is a manual standard Burroughs 50 and not the electric carriage 60 because this machine has a carriage return lever and also has a pair of shift lock keys adjacent to the shift keys on either side of the keyboard.  The electric carriage 60 omits the right side shift lock and adds a large key to return the carriage in a similar position, and omits the return lever.

Above, an eraser shield depicting the Burroughs Electric Carriage Typewriter.  Ink blotters and eraser shields are two of the more "workaday" pieces of ephemera one might find - and it's nice to see two such pieces in unusued condition.

Above..  NOW.  A 1933 trade catalog introduces the Burroughs Electric Carriage Typewriter.  Note the lack of return lever on the carriage, and the large key on the right side of the keyboard for "return."

A different trade catalog provided by Peter shows some of the features of the Burroughs Standard Typewriter.  This particular image shows quite well the appearance of the "crinkle" or "crackle" painted panels on these typewriters.  This paint, by the way, appears to have been applied on top of gloss paint and will come off if severe cleaning methods or tanking are used on the exterior panels.  We have seen that ourselves!

"Combining all the most modern typewriter features with beauty and advanced design...."  begins another page from the 1933 Burroughs trade catalog.

We end Peter Weil's contribution with another trade catalog illustration showing the Burroughs Standard Typewriter in use.  It's easy to see from this angle that, were the paper not there, the typist could see the tab stops without moving the paper table, and of course could just as well see the scale on the paper bail and the front scale on which the margin stops are set. 

THANK YOU to Peter Weil for these further additions on the Burroughs line.



  1. I'm pretty fond of my Burroughs manual, but that is mostly because of its looks. Its Achilles' heel is the plastic ribbon mechanism gears, one on each side, which can easily break a tooth. When that happens, you can't type properly anymore, and they are a bear to replace. I have no idea why they decided to make a key component so brittle when most parts are made of invincible Detroit steel!

  2. Thanks for the note, Richard... I am going to check out those gears next time I'm deep in the vault where the Burroughs now reside. I must go look at yours too on your site to see what model it is and what the serial is. Collectors might have to attack the data in lieu of any corporate records!

    1. I just ran into that problem on my 1936 Burroughs 50 (S/N 51A109588)...drat! My 1934 Burroughs (S/N 50A60504 appears to be okay.
      Special thanks to Mike Hancock for providing serial number production date data (spent 43 years working at Burroughs).

  3. A fully comprehensive survey of the Burroughs, well done, Will.
    Now I will have to see if I can get me one of those machines.

  4. I just purchased a 1931 Burroughs type/add machine, something I had never seen before. It appears to be in excellent condition although it needs cleaning and either a new or re-inked ribbon. On the back it says, "Burroughs Adding Machine of Canada Ltd. Windsor Ontario. Made in Canada." I don't know where the serial number would be. I will work my way through the photos of your manuals above, but any information you can add to help in my restoration of this beauty would be appreciated. Thank you for this site.

  5. I just acquired a burroughs electric with a super wide carriage the belts are shot but the motor runs , I am at loss as to how it is supposed to function all keys push well but letters do not contact paper almost like there needs to be something engaged to bring carriage forward, it will only shift when powered up , very clean and very unique but I am listing it online as it will be an expert that restores to working condition.

  6. Thanks for sharing as it is an excellent post would love to read your future post

    office equipment

  7. Excellent survey of the Burroughs typewriter. I really would like to get one, preferably the model 60. I just love your historical essays, the best in the typewriter world by far.

  8. There's an age list now available for Burroughs:

  9. Just ran into the plastic ribbon advance gear issue with my 1936 Burroughs 50 (s/n 51A109588). I also have a 1934 Burroughs 50 (s/n 50A60504) that appears to be okay.
    Special thanks to Mike Hancock for providing the serial number production date data, which has now been incorporated into the typewriter database (he spent 43 years at Burroughs).