Cryptic, Clever & Cute – Tobias Frere-Jones

Cryptic, Clever & Cute – Tobias Frere-Jones.

AEG Mignon 4, 1926. Click on any image for high-res version.

a Model 4 “Mignon” made by Allgemeine Electrizitäts Gesellschaft (AEG) in 1926. I like its baffling quality — anyone who sees it will pause for a moment, trying to suss out the purpose of this contraption. It’s clear enough that letters are involved, but what happens after that is not so obvious. The back looks typewritery enough, but the rest? There are only three unmarked levers, so maybe this is some instructional aid? I’ve always thought it looks most like a Ouija board with telegraph keys.

It is an “index” typewriter, meaning that the typist uses one hand to point a metal stick at a letter on a grid, and the other hand to press a lever to print the letter. The division of work between left and right hands feels a bit like playing a guitar, with one hand picking the notes and the other making them audible. But the sound of a Mignon is more like a construction site: Thud. Thud. Chunk. [pause] Thud-thud. Chunk. Thud.

The user had to completely finish typing one letter before seeking the next, turning every document into a slow and plodding travail. After decades of competition, index typewriters dropped out of the market in the mid-thirties, and the (much faster) keyboard models became the norm.

The Mignon’s “type sleeve”, the cylinder carrying all the letters, was readily accessible and could be easily swapped out for other styles: roman, italic, blackletter, fraction sets, and so on.


The machine I found came with a roman, italic, and “Schecksicherung” (“check protection”) style, which would perforate the paper with letters made of thorns.