June 22, 2015

The Writing Machine

, and the type-writer.

[Posted on L&P, June 17, July 17, 2007, June 1, 2010, and Oct 21, 2013.]
        The first US patent for a typewriter, or rather an early precursor to the so-called typewriting machine, US patent no. X5,581, is one of my favorite patent images, but it looks more like an early precursor to a pinball machine.  It’s one of the “First Series” of patents from before the fire at the Patent Office in 1836.  After the fire, the USPTO started numbering the new patents from number 1 all over again to create the number sequence we are all familiar with today, but it’s really the “Second Series” of patents.  Subsequently they placed an “X” prefix before the numbers in the “First Series” in order to distinguish them from the “Second Series”.  The Burt image is nothing at all like the “writing with types” machines in the Sholes-Glidden-Soule US patent nos. 79,265 and 79,868.  I especially like the patents in the mid-1800’s for the early type-writing machines that have keyboards with keys similar to those on Schroeder’s toy piano in the Peanuts cartoons, ones that have quaint names such as “Le Clavier Imprimeur”, or “Cembalo Scrivano”.  They also show the origin of the words “key” and “keyboard” as now applied to the set of typing “keys”, since they used to resemble the keys of a small piano.
        Typewriters are sometimes referred to as “writing machines” in the early patents, but they’re really just typing machines.  The former machine is said to form the letters by “writing or printing on the paper”, and the latter is said to be a machine “designed to write with types instead of a pen”.  And as Truman Capote famously said, “That’s not writing.  That’s typing”.  My version is, “It isn’t handwriting.  It’s fingertip tapping”.
        So you can understand my pen researcher’s joy when, finally! a so-called “writing machine” that’s actually a writing machine, and not just another typing machine, showed up, US patent no. 972,920.  It also gives new meaning to the term “machine calligraphy”.  “When mechanically operated being styled a ‘Writeograph’ and when electrically operated a ‘Teleaugraph’. . . . The primary object of my invention is to provide a machine wherein positive and reliable means [a series of cam discs] are employed for accurately guiding a pen [to] reproduce hand writing”.  I’m going to use a much-cleaned-up version of one of the patent illustrations, minus the seventy-or-so part numbers, as the frontispiece in the forthcoming volume one of my patent book.  It’s a picture of a hand in a box that looks like “Thing”, the hand in The Addams Family cartoon and television show.  There’s even a coiled-up snake in there to keep “Thing” company.  Now, at last, you can finally see what’s inside the box, and just exactly what the hand is doing inside there.  It writes!
        Also see The Scientific American, Nov 2, 1901, p.283, for an article about a cam-driven machine for writing initials, perhaps a precursor to US patent no. 972,920.  This unpatented machine was designed and created by Henry T. Harra.  And lastly, John T. Underwood’s US trademark no. 16,108 for “Ribbons For Type-Writing Machines” is for a label with stars and intersecting lines.  Alas, the mighty John Underwood Ink Co. survived into the 20th century by becoming a lowly type-writer manufacturer.  It isn’t writing, it’s typing.


George Kovalenko.