Typewriters have had their turn as the kitschy, must-have, thrift store treasure. It’s time to swoon over a new one. Behold, the Keaton Music Typewriter. This extremely rare 1950s device allows you to print clean musical notation onto sheet music paper.
Early music typing had been tinkered with as early as the 19th century, but it was often an extraneous feature that was Frankenstein-ed onto regular typewriters. The earliest models included the 1885 Columbia Music Typewriter, the 1905 Dogilbert, the 1910 Nocoblick, the 1923 Walton Music Typewriter, and the 1931 Melotyp/Nototyp. The idea was certainly there, but they were not user-friendly enough to really catch on.
Then the Keaton Music Typewriter came along and it was completely the bees’ knees. This distinctive circular apparatus was invented by Robert H. Keaton. It was first patented in 1933 with only 14 keys. In 1953, he patented a new and improved 33-key version, which expanded the realm of possible notation.
The Keaton Music Typewriter looked very different from a regular typewriter. It had two keyboards, one of which moved while the other remained stationary. Rather than loading paper into a carriage as you would with other typewriters, the Keaton was laid flat over a sheet a paper. After the music was notated, it was a common practice to photograph or copy the pages so that multiple sheets could be distributed and sold.
Although many composers preferred to write their music out by hand, the gadget was well received by a small faction of publishers, educators, and musicians. They valued its ability to produce music faster and in higher quantities. Keaton’s typewriters were produced in San Francisco in very limited numbers. A few of the remaining ones have surfaced in museums and private collections, but it has been estimated that only 6-24 still exist today.
The Keaton Music Typewriters originally ran for $225 a pop. They are now valued at much higher, and you can occasionally find one floating around the web with an exorbitant asking price. One was recently available for purchase on Etsy for $6,000, but has since been sold to someone with way more money than me. You can see one in action here.