Byron A.Brooks has a secure place among the greatest typewriter inventors of all time. In typewriter terms, his No 1 claim to fame is that he invented the mechanisms which allowed typewriters to first type in both upper and lower case letters. But that is far from his only claim. Indeed, Brooks may well be better known today for his visionary 1893 novel Earth Revisited.
Most published typewriter histories are confused on the details of Brooks’ major breakthrough, with what we call the Remington 2. This is said to have resulted in the first “real typewriter” (although visible writing was still not possible, the Remington 2, not the Sholes and Glidden or the Remington 1, is regarded the proper starting point for the typewriters we know today). The end of “capitals only” typing required not just upper and lower case characters to be embossed on the typeslugs, but, to allow for both of them, the lateral movement of the platen, which was adjusted back and forward by a shift key. On looking at Brook’s patent, it is clear that he incorporated both of these elements in his one design.
The Remington 2, as we know it, was referred to by Remington itself at the time as its “Model 4”. William Ozmun Wyckoff, then a sales agent for Remington, had started to produce a publication called The Type-writer Magazine, and with regard to the Model 4 he declared in an editorial in the January 1878 issue, “We are happy to inform … the public generally that the typewriter is now perfected”. “There was no longer any achievement left for the typewriter industry, because the Model 4 was everything the machine could ever be,” wrote Bruce Bliven Jnr, recording Wyckoff's claim in Bliven's The Wonderful Writing Machine (1954). This Remington 2 is from Wim Van Rompuy's typewriter.be website:
Paul Robert at The Virtual Typewriter Museum sums it up well when he says, “The most remarkable aspect of the Remington Standard 2 typewriter, the first typewriter to be produced and sold in considerable numbers, is the fact that it looks so familiar to modern eyes. This is the archetype of the typewriter. Ask anyone to pick out the oldest machine in any typewriter collection that includes this model from 1878, and they'll more than likely pick out a machine that was built 20 years later.”
Brooks also invented other typewriters, such as the revolutionary Brooks (patented 1885, produced in 1887 by the United Typewriter and Supplies Co, not the Union Writing Machine Co as repeatedly stated by Michael Adler), the linear index Crown (patented 1888, produced 1894) and the People’s index machine (patented 1892, produced 1893), as well as a 1891 typewriter which never went into production, the Philadelphia. According to Paul Lippman’s American Typewriters: A Collector’s Encyclopedia (1992), a variation of the Brooks was marketed in England as the Eclipse because of Brooks’ “contractual restraints”).
(Photos of the Crown and People's, above, from Darryl Rehr's 1997 Antique Typewriters & Office Collectibles: Identification & Value Guide).
The Brooks, because of its peculiar pivoted vibrator action, was one of the first typewriters which provided visible writing. Brooks was one of the first inventors to look at the possibility - and apply for patents - of the electric typewriter (as far back as 1883; he also that year assigned Edward R.Knowles to design a dynamo for it), and one of the first to employ typewheels – later to be used on Blickensderfers and in time to evolve into the IBM golfball.
It appears certain Brooks was also the first to patent parallel key action, one of the first to investigate the “grasshopper” and downstroke key actions, not to mention tabulation and automatic line and word spacing. On top of all this, Brooks also patented a printing device, a printing telegraph machine, an “autographic reed telegraph machine”, and in 1885 a typographic machine (correctly referred to in his university’s alumni records as a linotype machine, for type-casting).
Brooks was granted at least 21 patents, most of them related to the typewriter. His typewriter patents were variously assigned to himself, to Wyckoff, (Clarence Walker) Seamans and (Henry Harper) Benedict – who had taken over the marketing of the Remington typewriter – to the Union Typewriter Company (a cartel involving Remington, Smith, Densmore, Yost and Brooks typewriters) and the Philadelphia Typewriter Company. The linotype machine patent was assigned to the Bandotype Company, of which Brooks was president and lawyer James Bennett vice-president.
As if all this inventing was not enough of an achievement for one lifetime, Brooks wrote four books, King Saul: A Tragedy, in 1876, Those Children and Their Teachers, in 1882, Phil Vernon and His Schoolmasters, in 1885 and, most notably, the internationally acclaimed futuristic novel Earth Revisited in 1893.
Byron Alden Brooks was born in Theresa, New York, on December 12, 1845, and educated at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, from which he graduated in 1871 with bachelor and master of arts degrees. From 1871-72, he was the principal of the Union Free School at Dobbs Ferry, New York. In 1873 he became assistant editor of The National Quarterly Review in New York, as well as continuing to teach.
Wesleyan University alumni records state Brooks “invented” the Remington 2. Whether this stems from a claim Brooks made about himself or not, it must be considered pretty close to the truth.
On December 30, 1875, just 21 months after the first typewriters, the Sholes and Glidden, began to be marketed by E.Remington and Sons of Ilion, New York, Brooks applied for a US patent for a vital improvement to the typewriter.
The patent was not granted until April 30, 1878, at about the time the first typewriter to use Brooks’ invention – the Remington 2 – went into production. According to Michael Adler’s 1997 Antique Typewriters: From Creed to QWERTY, “… when Remington began thinking of introducing the upper and lower case model it was soon discovered that Byron Brooks already held a patent for that particular development.” Adler repeats this claim later, writing “ … Brooks, the Remington employee who helped re-model the Sholes and Glidden prototype in the early 1870s … also held the patent on change of case so that Remington (and others) had to pay him royalties when they introduced upper and lower case models later on.”
In reference to visible typing, Adler added, “When he [Brooks] eventually went into production to market his own machine, (his 1885 patent beating Finch by a year) his three row keyboard instrument with its semicircle of type bars positioned vertically behind the platen, although not solving the problem of the paper, set a style which the others more or less followed.”
Adler claims Brooks was a mathematician who was in the employ of Remington, and who then left its employment. But there is no evidence this was the case. Outside of his typewriter work, Brooks appears to have spent most of his life in either teaching or with his literary pursuits, and to have been very much a free agent as far as typewriter designs were concerned. None of his patents, for example, are assigned to Remington (putting aside Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict).
Brook’s 1893 novel Earth Revisited still stands high in the large body of utopian and speculative fiction that characterised the later 19th and early 20th centuries. In it, Brooks melds science with religion: He unites the utopian genre with elements of spiritualism, including hypnotism, somnambulism, clairvoyance, mediumship and automatic writing; reincarnation and life after death are important themes.
Brooks’ hero, Herbert Atheron/Harold Amesbury, dies at age 49 and wakes in the body of a 27-year-old man living a century later (1992). He experiences a vastly improved world, one which in many respects resembles the world of today (there is, for example, a “United States of Europe”). This new world includes full equal rights for women, communal food preparation for private homes, a juvenile justice system that is empowered to remove children from homes with unsuitable parents, electric cars, radio, aircraft, electricity generated with solar power, color photography and advances in electronic communications. “Earth Revisited verges on science fiction in its anticipation of future technologies,” says one reviewer. “Notably, Brooks envisions contact with intelligent life on Mars. Brooks also foresees a vast land reclamation project that turns the Sahara Desert into a region of lakes and farmland.”
The character of Atheron/Amesbury is based on Brooks himself. In 1892, Atheron he is a successful businessman, married, the father of a son and daughter. Not yet 50, he has contracted a fatal illness and feels he has wasted his life by concentrating on business and neglecting the personal and family matters that count most. He especially regrets the loss of his first love, a woman named Theresa, who died young after he abandoned her. The re-born hero has a fiancée, Helen Newcome, who brings the protagonist to her inventor father, whose inventions benefit society as a whole.
(Patent drawing for Brooks' never-to-be-made Philadelphia typewriter).
Where all this rings true to Brooks’ real life is that he was born in Theresa and when he wrote Earth Revisited he was 47, a successful, married businessman with a son and a daughter. His daughter was called Helen, the daughter of an inventor, a man whose inventions (notably the typewriter) were benefitting society at large.
Brooks married Sarah Ethel Davis at Middletown, Connecticut, on July 17, 1872. She died on September 11, 1904, and on May 2, 1906, Brooks remarried, to Ella J. Ball, of Brooklyn. Brooks and Sarah had three children, one of whom died at seven months. The children were Byron Harold (born January 23, 1878); Sarah Ethel (born January 6, 1881, died August 8, 1881) and Helen Maria (born September 7, 1886).
Brooks died in Brooklyn on September 28, 1911, aged 65. His obituary in The New York Times read: