Little Bits of History

July 23

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 23, 2017

1829: US Patent No. 5581X is issued. The X-patents were issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office between July 1790 (when the first patent was issued) and July 1836 (when a disastrous fire destroyed the patent office. It is thought about 9,957 patents were lost, along with some prototypes also stored at the facility. Better record keeping was instituted after the fire, but only 2,845 of those lost patents have been restored. This invention is one of those lucky ones and the patent is available online.

William Austin Burt was born in Massachusetts in 1792. He was an inventor, legislator, surveyor, and millwright. He was interested in the sea and navigation, but his mother discouraged him from the sailing life since her own father had died at sea. Instead. William used his skills to build better navigational instrumentation. These included a solar compass which used the sun as a measurement and could be used both on land and at sea, and an equatorial sextant which was a precision instrument for positioning a ship at sea. But his patent granted on this day was for something more homebound.

The typographer was America’s first typewriter. While a working prototype was built, it did not speed up secretarial work as hoped. Pellegrino Turri had made a machine in 1808, with this patent, Burt had exclusive American rights to see typographers in the US for 14 years and had the paper signed by President Andrew Jackson to prove it. The name for the machine didn’t change until 1874 and any machine using letters of typeface were typographers. Burt’s machine was unable to make typing much easier and it would take many improvements before typewriters looked anything like we imagine today.

Burt’s machine was 12 inches wide, 12 inches high, and 18 inches long. The user mechanically rotated a lever and when pressed, it would make an impression of the inked character on the paper. The paper was attached to velvet type belt which rotated when the lever was depressed. Different styles of typeface could be used. The paper traveled via the endless band inside the machine. All the letters were inked, but only the one used would be pressed to the paper. A dial on the front of the machine let the user know how long the document had become and was able to print out pages measuring 15 inches in length. Although the original prototype was destroyed in the fire, Burt’s grandson was able to reconstruct the typographer using a copy of the reissued patent. He did so and displayed the machine at the Columbian Exposition in 1892. Burt is called the “father of the typewriter” but he was so far ahead of his time that few models were sold and it was sold off to Cyrus Spalding in 1830 for $75. Eventually, the machine would be perfected.

My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane. – Graham Greene

I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit. – P. G. Wodehouse

I don’t want anything to do with anything mechanical between me and the paper, including a typewriter, and I don’t even want a fountain pen between me and the paper. – Shelby Foote

A typewriter is a means of transcribing thought, not expressing it. – Marshall McLuhan

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