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date: 16 October 2019

Underwood, John Thomasfree

(12 April 1857–02 July 1937)
  • Ann T. Keene

Underwood, John Thomas (12 April 1857–02 July 1937), typewriter manufacturer, was born in London, England, to John Underwood, a chemist, and Elizabeth Grant Maire Underwood. The family was apparently prosperous enough to educate young John, the eldest son in the family, at boarding schools in London and France, though their means had apparently become reduced by the time John Thomas Underwood was in his mid-teens. The elder Underwood, who had studied under the noted British scientist Michael Faraday, specialized in the creation of printing inks and copying paper; in 1872, following the death of his wife and their sixth child, he immigrated to the United States, settling in New Durham, New Jersey, and opening a small business manufacturing paper and ink. John, along with a younger brother, joined him in New Jersey the following year and found work as a laborer in an iron foundry.

By the 1870s the large-scale manufacture of typewriters in the United States had begun, pioneered by the company of E. Remington & Sons in Ilion, New York. Believing the typewriter had a bright future, John Thomas Underwood and his father began a business in 1874 manufacturing carbon paper, ribbons, and other typing supplies. By the early 1880s John Underwood and Company, as it was known, was flourishing, and in 1883, following the death of his father, the younger Underwood moved the business to Brooklyn, New York. As it continued to prosper, he began investigating the possibility of manufacturing typewriters as well, and perhaps improving on their design. He was motivated in part by Remington's manufacture of its own typewriter ribbons, which meant that Underwood was losing an important share of the typewriter accessories market.

At that time, when the typewriter was still in its infancy, most American typewriters, and most importantly Remingtons, were constructed with bars of type hung in a circular basketlike formation underneath the platen. This was a serious design flaw, because it meant that the line being typed could be seen only if the carriage was lifted. Searching for a typewriter with a more practical design, Underwood found what he was looking for in a so-called front-stroke machine, built by a German-born mechanic, Franz Xavier Wagner, and initially patented in 1893. Buying the rights to this and Wagner's subsequent patents on improved machines, Underwood established the Wagner Typewriting Company in 1895 and hired a factory in lower Manhattan to begin manufacturing the new typewriter. The first Underwood models, as they were called, appeared on the market in 1897.

Following his successful introduction of the new typewriter, Underwood incorporated the Underwood Typewriting Manufacturing Company in 1898, the same year that the factory expanded and moved to Bayonne, New Jersey. Two years later his business made a significant gain when the U.S. Navy ordered 250 Underwood machines. Underwood prominently featured this government affiliation in its advertising, and it undoubtedly aided the growth of the company. A still larger manufacturing facility soon became necessary, and over the next few years Underwood built a large factory in Hartford, Connecticut, moving his firm there in 1901. In its first year of operation, the Hartford factory turned out more than 12,000 typewriters.

In 1903 Underwood merged the Wagner and Underwood companies into a single entity, incorporating it as the Underwood Typewriter Company, and he became its president. Throughout this time Underwood had continued to maintain his sales of typewriting accessories, and with the rapid success of his new typewriter he was able to virtually corner the American market in both machines and supplies, successfully challenging his major rival, Remington. By 1915 the Underwood Typewriter Company employed 7,500 workers and produced close to 500 machines daily, making it the largest company of its kind then in existence. The Wagner design that Underwood had pioneered became the prototype for all modern typewriters.

Underwood continued to lead the company until 1927, following its merger with two other typewriter manufacturers, Elliott Fisher and Sundstrand. Underwood served for two years as chairman of the board of directors of the new Underwood Elliott Fisher Company. When the position was eliminated in 1929, Underwood remained with the company as a director. In 1936, a year before he died, the company established a new research facility in Hartford, called the General Research Laboratory, for the purpose of expanding its product line. The company that Underwood had founded continued to grow in the years following his death. During World War II the company turned its facilities over to the defense effort and it became a major manufacturer of M-1 carbine barrels. In 1945 it changed its name to the Underwood Corporation and returned to the peacetime manufacturer of typewriters. An agreement in 1959 between the corporation and Olivetti, the prominent Italian typewriter manufacturer, led to the subsequent takeover of Underwood by that firm, ending the American company's sixty-odd-year reign as a pioneering typewriter company.

In 1901 Underwood had married Grace Brainard, and the couple had a daughter; the family lived together in Brooklyn, New York. Underwood enjoyed book collecting as a hobby, but much of his energy outside the office was devoted to civic and charitable work. As an active member of the Presbyterian Church and its Board of Foreign Missions, one of his major charities was the Chosen Christian College, founded in Seoul by his brother Harold, a noted missionary in Korea. Underwood also aided the poor of rural Kentucky as well as service projects closer to home, including the Brooklyn YMCA. In addition he was a patron of cultural associations, providing support to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Institute of Arts and Sciences, among other organizations. He was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1926 for relief given to the soldiers and citizens of France during and after World War I. After suffering from heart disease for several years, he died at his summer home in Wianno, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.


Biographical information on Underwood is available in Lucien M. Underwood and Howard J. Banker, The Underwood Families of America (2 vols., 1913), a privately printed family history. Richard N. Current, The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954), includes limited biographical data. For additional information on the history of the typewriter and the role of Underwood and his company, see especially Wilfred A. Beeching, Century of the Typewriter (1974). An obituary appears in the New York Times, 3 July 1937.