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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And So It Begins

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 1, 2015
Sholes and Glidden typewriter

Sholes and Glidden typewriter

July 1, 1874: The Sholes and Glidden typewriter goes on sale. The machine was also known as the Remington No. 1 and was the first commercially successful typewriter. The principal designer was Christopher Sholes who got help from Samuel Soule (who left soon after work began) and Carlos Glidden. James Densmore replaced Soule and provided financial backing for the project. Work began in 1866 in order to assist with printing page numbers in books as well as serial numbers on tickets and other similar projects. Sholes was a Wisconsin printer and he teamed up with Soule, another printer to find a better way. They worked together in Charles Kleinsteuber’s machine shop in Milwaukee. Glidden was frequently found at the shop as he worked on his own inventions. He joined the team. It was his idea to change the machine so it could also be used to print alphabetical characters as well as the numbers.

Glidden saw a Scientific American article from July 1867 describing the British “Pterotype” machine. Sholes thought it was too complicated and figured a better machine could be designed. Several dozen patents for printing devices had been granted in the US and abroad, but none of the machines were effective (or successful). Sholes and Soule were successful in creating a number machine and in November 1866, Sholes wanted to try his hand at creating one with letters. He invited Mathias Schwalbach, a German clockmaker, to help with the development and construction. To test feasibility, a key was taken from a telegraph machine and modified to print the letter “W”. It worked and by September 1867, a machine with the full alphabet, numbers, and some punctuation was completed.

The machine was used to write letters to people who might help fund the machine into production. Densmore received a letter and was so impressed, he bought a 25% interest for $600 (the cost of R&D to that point). When he finally was shown the machine in March 1868, he thought it was clumsy and good for nothing – except showing the underlying principles were sound. There was more work to be done and Densmore was willing to help fund improvements. It took another 25 to 30 prototypes, each having incremental improvements over its predecessor, before there was something finally able to be used. Western Union bought some machines in 1870, but declined to purchase the rights, believing something better would be developed for less than Densmore wanted for the rights.

The men kept working on the idea, improving both the machine and the production techniques. Finally, Remington and Sons were contacted. They had been an arms manufacturer during the Civil War and in peacetime were looking for a way to use their skilled machinists’ talents. With a production facility added to the mix, it was possible to manufacture 1,000 machines as stated in a March 1, 1873 contract. There was an option for production of another 24,000. Sales were sluggish at first and by December 1874, only 400 machines has been sold due to both high price and unreliability. For over 100 years, typewriters were THE technology until it was surpassed by word processors and computers.

I had one typewriter for 50 years, but I have bought seven computers in six years. I suppose that’s why Bill Gates is rich, and Underwood is out of business. – Andy Rooney

The image of the reporter as a nicotine-stained Quixote, slugging back Scotch while skewering city hall with an expose ripped out of a typewriter on the crack of deadline, persists despite munificent evidence to the contrary. – Paul E. Gray

I’m all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with typewriters. – Frank Lloyd Wright

A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about. – Douglas Adams

Also on this day: Four Score and Seven Years Ago – In 1861, the Battle of Gettysburg began.
Can I Get a Witness? – In 1879, The Watchtower was first published.
Russians Reading – In 1862, the Russian State Library was founded.
Close Call – In 1770, Lexell’s Comet missed Earth.
Justice – In 1870, the US Department of Justice was created.

Clackity Clack

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 23, 2013
Early typewriter

Early typewriter

June 23, 1868: Christopher Latham Sholes receives US patent #79,265 for an improved type-writer. Sholes, born in Pennsylvania in 1819, moved to Wisconsin after completing an apprenticeship in printing. He became a newspaper publisher and politician – serving in both the Wisconsin State Senate and State Assembly. He was also an inventor. He received several patents over the years for various improvements and innovations to the typing machine.

The first patented machine had 10 short keys above 11 longer ones and were described by the inventor as “similar to the key-board of a piano.” The description has 21 keys for 26 letters. His next patent, also from 1868, has 36 keys – digits on the left and letters, alphabetically arranged, on the right. Later patents show keyboard layouts that are more familiar, tiered rows of keys. He is credited with the QWERTY keyboard, a legacy we still revere today.

Sholes sold his patent to the Remington Arms Company in 1872 for $12,000 (≈ $200,000 today). Already successful as an arms and sewing machine manufacturer, Remington started making the first commercial typewriters on March 1, 1873. Remington stopped producing sewing machines and typewriters and continued solely as arms merchants. They sold their typewriter interests to the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company, Inc. along with the rights to continue with the Remington name. They still produce office equipment along with electric razors.

Sholes originally had placed the keys on the board in alphabetical order. Typists, after mastering the technique and typing with some speed, kept entangling the keys as they struck against the paper. There are two theories for the new placement of the keys. The first is that it would slow down the typists and reduce key snags. The second is that the new arrangement physically placed the striking keys far enough apart to avoid locking. Since English has no diacritical marks, the keyboard is modified for other languages.

“Don’t be too harsh to these poems until they’re typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction.” – Dylan Thomas

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” – Isaac Asimov

“I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.” – English professor, Ohio University

“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

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Computer keyboards are the progeny of typewriters but they also have teleprinters (or teletype) and keypunches in the “family tree”. Because the keyboard is not just a mechanical device delivering keystrokes to paper, there has to be a conveyance of electromechanical data entered by the user to reach the computer and eventually also the display. This takes more than just striking the keys and delivering ink to the paper rolled through the machine. The early computers would use keypunch devices and eventually migrated to what we think of as our usual input device. Today, we have the convenience of touch pad typing on many of our handheld devices and they often still have the QWERTY layout for the letters.

Also on this day: Mutiny on the Discovery – In 1611, Henry Hudson’s crew mutinies.
Lorena and John – In 1993, domestic violence made the world headlines.
Banff – In 1887, the Rocky Mountains Park Act of Canada was passed.

Speed Typing

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 6, 2011

Hansen Writing Ball

January 6, 1714: Englishman Henry Mill is granted British patent number 385. It was granted “by the grace of Queen Anne” and was titled “An artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.” Today, we call this a typewriter. Mill never completed his machine and the idea died with him, at least for a time.

Pellegrino Turri also invented an early version of the machine but did not capitalize on the invention. Next, in 1829 William Austin Burt patented a machine he called the “Typowriter” and is often listed as the first typewriter. This early machine did not speed up the process of writing since it was laborious to use and even in the fastest hands, was slower than writing. By the middle of the 19th century, with business ventures needing better communication methods, stenographers and telegraphers could reach speeds of 130 words per minute while those writing by hand had a limit of about 30 words per minute.

Between 1829 and 1870 many different early typewriters were developed and patented both in Europe and in America. None, however, went into commercial production. The first to do that was Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen’s Hansen Writing Ball. This Danish contraption was a success in Europe. The first commercially successful typewriter was invented by three men in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They sold their patent for $12,000 and eventually E. Remington and Sons began production. They also coined the term typewriter. The QWERTY layout was part of this machine.

This original typewriter was constructed in such a way that the typist could not actually see what was being typed. The answer was the Oliver typewriter introduced in 1895, which made it possible to see the words as they were typed. IBM introduced the Electromatic Model 04 in 1941, the first successful electric typewriter. They remained popular until 1961 when IBM upgraded to the Selectric model which used a different mechanism to place ink on paper, the typeball. Although still in use in some areas, the typewriter has more or less succumbed to the computer.

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

“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

“Miller is not really a writer but a non-stop talker to whom someone has given a typewriter.” – Gerald Brenan

“Sometimes I think my writing sounds like I walked out of the room and left the typewriter running.” – Gene Fowler

Also on this day:
Can You Hear Me Now? – In 1838, Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail got their new telegraph system working.
Washington National Cathedral – In 1893, the Cathedral was granted its charter.

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