Today in History: June 23

The typewriter is one of those devices whose need had been obvious for decades, even a century before a practical one was produced. In 1714, one Henry Mill of England was awarded patent number 395 on January 7, 1714, for a device whose description sounds like nothing less than a typewriter, even though that word had not yet been coined. The 1714 English patent reads:

He hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and publick records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.

(Patents did not need to be very scientific in their language in 1714.) No device was produced, and no wonder: none was described. Mill’s idea, which described a possible solution to the perceived need, is what was patented, and it is now considered to be the first mention of the idea of a typewriter.

A century and a half later, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, necessity and invention met up. On June 23, 1868, U.S. Patent Number 79265 was granted to three men for their “Improvement in type-writing machines.” A design for an actual working machine resulted.

Christopher Latham Sholes, a newspaper publisher, discovered his own version of the need for a typewriter when his pressmen went on strike and he needed to print the paper himself. He and a printer later developed a machine that could print numbers in sequence, for ticket sales or raffles.

He and his partner came upon an article in Scientific American by John Pratt that described (with no pictures) a possible invention: “Pratt’s Pterotype,” a “literary piano.” Sholes and his two partners, Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, took the word piano a bit literally: their first device had two rows of keys, one white and one black.

Sholes also realized through experience that the keys of the keyboard could not be arranged in alphabetical order. Too many letter combinations led to the typebars getting tangled with one another. The QWERTY keyboard was not invented, but the idea behind it was.

The first typewriter, pictured at top, resembled “a cross between a piano and a kitchen table.” It was not small, but it was portable. It also was a “blind writer,” meaning the paper was rolled into a slot above the typist’s head, unseen until checked on later.

* * * *
Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected president of Egypt 60 years ago today.

* * * *
The Antarctic Treaty, agreed to in 1959, became effective 55 years ago today. It protects Antarctica from military activity and declares that the “area is to be used for peaceful purposes only.”

* * * *
The Nintendo 64 was released in Japan 20 years ago today.

* * * *
Aaron Spelling died 10 years ago today. Peter Falk died five years ago today.

* * * *
Bob Fosse was born on this date in 1927. June Carter Cash was born in 1929 on this date. Bert Convy was born on this date in 1933. Stuart Sutcliffe was born on this date in 1940. Wilma Rudolph was born on this date in 1940.

Robert Hunter is 75 today. His lyric, “Box of Rain,” sung by Phil Lesh (who composed the music) and performed by the Grateful Dead:

 
James Levine is 73. Ted Shackelford is 70 today. Bryan Brown is 69. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is 68. Frances McDormand is 59 today. Joss Whedon is 52. Selma Blair is 44. LaDainian Tomlinson is 37 today.

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