08 January 2010

The complicated history of the typewriter

It was on January 7, way back in 1714, that Henry Mill patented a device "for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing." He had invented, one might say, the typewriter, two hundred and ninety-six years ago yesterday.

Or one might not. It is a matter of definition.

Almost nothing else is known of Mill's invention beyond the brief description in his patent petition. Whatever exactly his machine looked like -- it didn't catch on, was over time forgotten, and the essential idea had to be re-invented.

Several such inventions came about in the early 19th century. The idea was "in the air," both because (assuming the letters on keys were raised) it seemed like a natural way to allow the blind to write, and because mechanizing a motor function was as popular a generic idea then as digitizing an analog function would become in the late 20th century.

One early and very influential model was the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, (yes, "type writer" was a two word phrase then) which began production in late 1873 and appeared on the American market in 1874. It looked like a sewing machine, it produced only capital letters, and (most fatefully) it introduced the QWERTY keyboard. The reason the keys have the peculiar ordering that they still have to this day remains a hotly discussed issue.

My point? Just that it is seldom a straightforward question, "who invented X?" For any X of any degree of complexity, there may have been lots of false starts and re-imaginings, before things came together in now-recognizable form. "Intellectual property" as a field of law is largely devoted to the task of making such matters seem simpler than they can truly be.

Just for today, though (and because I missed it yesterday) : the inventor of the typewriter was Henry Mill.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.