austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

I'm never competing with history again

Excerpt from Threads Of Destiny: How Typewriter Ribbons Created The Modern World.

No great inventions are created perfect; they come about from fitting several good ideas together, and some of them can take quite a while to arrive. While E Remington and Sons made the first successful mass-produced typewriter in 1873 it had several key flaws -- most obvious to the modern eye, a type bar which was underneath the paper. In this design you could not see what you had typed until you had typed several more lines, and forgotten what you were going on about in the first place. But that was fine thanks to a competing design flaw. The earliest designs just made crisp little indents in the paper, leaving the ink to be filled in later by some other method. The intention was for people people to carefully use toothpicks -- or, Remington hoped, their custom-designed ink droppers, where they anticipated the real money would be made -- to drip ink into the creases, which dedicated experts could stand to do for nearly four minutes per hour. For a while people sent blank pieces of paper and enclosed a note saying what they wanted to type. Soon those addressed stopped reading the notes altogether, saving effort on all parties.

Nevertheless the desire to automatically add ink to typed letters could not be stopped. By 1877 all the major dailies in the innovative, high-pressure New York City daily newspaper market, not to mention most of the weeklies, biweeklies, Brooklyn papers, and the papers brought in by railroad from Philadelphia as ballast, had followed the lead of Charles Latham Shoales. He pioneered a two-man system where one person would type, calling out the letter intended, and the other person would quickly poke an oil can-like contraption into the machine and try to squirt just enough ink onto the appropriate letter's type bar or, if the timing was just a bit off, onto the shirt of the typist. Composition speed was slow, particularly in the crowded and noisy newsrooms of the day. Often brawls erupted.

Matters changed the next year when James Gordon Bennett Junior, the cantankerous and often-drunk owner of The New-York Herald, who had been shamed out of polite New York City society after one raucous New Year's Eve party when he urinated on a grand piano in mixed company, made one of his famed and dreaded returns from his Paris exile. He stormed off the steamship that rare June day into the newsroom, demanded, ``Some blasted one of you solve this Linotype problem, unless that was Whitelaw Reid at the Tribune!'', kicked a radiator, and fired a confused Duncan MacKinnon, who had wandered in to the building by mistake thinking this was A T Stewart's department store and couldn't find his way out, before curling up to sleep on the telegraph operator. MacKinnon, Canadian by birth, had no means of directly challenging the quarrelsome man, and so responded by inventing the fountain pen.

This seems to be the wrong excerpt. I'll have to re-check and get back to you.

Trivia: The earliest typewriters had only capital letters. Source: The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A Norman.

Currently Reading: Close To Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, Michael Capuzzo.


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