Two days to Typewriter Day
HOW JOHN PRATT’S PTEREOTYPE
winged its way to
the HAMMOND TYPEWRITERIn the days leading to the 143rd anniversary of Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Willard Soulé being issued with their first patent for what would come to be known as the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, it needs to be remembered that these men were not working in splendid isolation in 1867-68.
Indeed, the very word “typewriting” had entered the lexicon a month or so before Sholes, Glidden and Soule had even begun to assemble their machine.
Richard Current wrote in The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954) that “While making their first writing machine … Sholes and his colleagues in Milwaukee were oblivious of the fact that many other inventors before them had put their hands to the same task and had failed.”
This is not true. As Current himself had previously pointed out, Sholes was aware of an existing writing machine before he began work on his invention. In the summer of 1867, “an article in the Scientific American for July 6, 1867, was brought to his [Sholes’s] attention”.
Michael Adler in Antique Typewriters (1997) claims Glidden actually gave the article about John Pratt’s Pterotype to Sholes to read, in doing so encouraging Sholes to put aside his work on a page numbering machine to make a letter printing machine instead.
Adler’s claim stems from the Herkimer County Historical Society’s 1923 The Story of the Typewriter, in which it was written that the Scientific American article “appealed so strongly to [Sholes’s] imagination that he decided to see what could be done”.
(Interestingly enough, Bruce Bliven in The Wonderful Writing Machine assumes that the article was written by another typewriter inventor of the period, the Scientific’s part-owner and editor Alfred Ely Beach, though it seems to have come from the London Society of Arts’ Journal, republished in London Engineering.)
Despite his remarkable achievements in typewriter inventing, John Pratt remains a relatively obscure figure in typewriter history.
Some sources continue to say he was British – he did live in Britain for four years, but he was American through and through. It is also widely believed that once the Sholes typewriter went into production, Pratt and his designs ceased to be relevant. Nothing could be further from the truth – the Pratt typewriter grew into the very famous Hammond typewriter.
Charles Vonley Oden in his 1917 Evolution of the Typewriter misguidedly dismissed Pratt out of hand. “Mr Pratt’s machine,” Oden wrote, “was soon numbered among the many failures that had preceded it.” How wrong can one get? But this was scant disregard for the facts compared to Wilfred A. Beeching’s over-dramatised and mistaken-ridden summary of Pratt in his Century of the Typewriter of 1974. Beeching called Pratt’s Pterotype “Dead Sea fruit” – that is, something that appears to be beautiful or full of promise but is in reality nothing but illusion and disappointment.
Far from being a passing “illusion” on the typewriter inventing scene, Pratt actually remained extremely pertinent to typewriter development for a period of 36 years, 1863-1899. He was still designing typewriters for James Bartlett Hammond in 1898, 32 years after being issued with his first writing-machine patent. One of his later designs is the patent we look at today. It was on this day in 1892 that Pratt was issued with a patent which he assigned to Hammond.
Other claimants in the convoluted Pratt case go to opposite extremes, and say it is Pratt, not Sholes, who should be credited with inventing the first practical typewriter. This statement has, indeed, more basis in fact than most other things that are still being written about Pratt.
It is true that Pratt was issued with a patent for his Pterotype (“winged type”) in London while he was living in England in 1866.
But whether, as some Pratt advocates maintain, it ever went beyond a prototype, and was produced, sold and used on a commercial basis in another, highly dubious point. Tellingly, this later allegation is associated with the Hammond typewriter, only further compounding the confusion about Pratt. One such comment is that “the distinction of being first to invent, patent, build, sell … the first practical typewriter is held for J.J. Pratt”.
A fairer assessment, given elsewhere, is that Pratt “inspired” the Sholes and Glidden and “Accordingly … has been called ‘the grandfather’ of the typewriter”.
John Jonathan Pratt was born in what was then called Unionville (now just Union) in South Carolina, on April 13, 1831. He graduated from Cokesbury College in Greenwood in 1849, then moved to Alabama with his family and read law under Judge Benjamin Franklin Porter in Greenville. He married Julia R. Porter, the good judge's daughter, and in 1853 the couple moved to the city of Centre in Cherokee County. Pratt was a school teacher, a lawyer and editor of a newspaper in which he had invested (The National Democrat), as well as an “ad hoc advisor on events of his time”. There was also a Pratt plantation, known as Pine Knoll, where Pratt is buried today.
According to Adler, Pratt built his first model in Centre in 1863, but as a Southerner could not get a patent for it, because of the Civil War. Towards the end of the war, in 1864, Pratt and his wife settled in England, but returned to the US in 1868.
Pratt was issued with British patent No 3163 on December 1, 1866. He had prototypes constructed by an instrument maker in Glasgow, and in London, with the assistance of mechanical engineer E.B. Burge. Pratt presented one of these at the Society of Arts in London on May 1, 1867. This, or another like it, was left behind in England and is now in the Science Museum in South Kensington.
On returning to the US, the Pratts first lived back in Greenville, from where, on August 11, 1868, Pratt applied for and was issued with a US version of his British patent. US patent No 81,000 was described as an “Improvement in Mechanical Typographers”. In 1876, Pratt displayed the Pterotype at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, bringing it to the attention of at least two other designers, both of whom were hellbent on taking the next big step beyond the Sholes and Glidden: James Bartlett Hammond and Lucien Stephen Crandall.
Pratt returned to Centre, where he applied for a further typewriter patent in 1879, and by 1885, when he applied for his third typewriter patent, he was living in Gadsden, where he was editor of The Gadsden Times.
These second (above) and third (below) typewriter patents issued to Pratt embrace a highly significant difference to the first: they were assigned to the Hammond Typewriter Company.
Two of Pratt’s other three typewriter patents, applied for in 1895 and 1898, and both issued in 1899, when Pratt was living in Brooklyn, were also assigned to Hammond (below).
Paul Robert’s insightful, detailed portrait of James Hammond, published in The Typewriter Sketchbook which Robert edited and published in 2007, might explain the gap of 10 years between Pratt patents assigned to Hammond.
Robert concedes that with Hammond’s original design, “the work of John Jonathan Pratt … played a major role”. But in November 1878, Hammond began to file for his own patents, which were granted in February 1880.
The first Hammonds were made by the Garvin Machine Company in New York, through the “conspicuous work” of mechanic Edward J. Manning (above) and the Hammond typewriter appeared at the 1884-85 New Orleans Centennial Exposition. For the time being, it seems, Hammond, with Manning now at his side, had no further use for Pratt. But Manning left Hammond and became a typewriter designer in his own right. He worked for Wagner, then Underwood, before becoming general manager and vice-president of Royal.
It was in 1876 that the Pratt typewriter story had started to get more interesting. Pratt’s machine had typefaces on a type plate, which was moved horizontally and vertically by the keys, and a hammer struck the paper from behind, driving it against the type. Remind you of anything? Yes, the Hammond of course.
But it was Pratt’s development of a typewheel which got Hammond and Crandall initially interested in his designs. Like Pratt before them, Hammond and Crandall believed the Sholes and Glidden typebasket, with its suspended typebars, was not the ultimate answer for the typewriter, principally because the typebars tended to jam at the printing point. Pratt had already surmised that while a typewheel was preferable, its disadvantage was the time it took for the wheel to turn to the desired letter. A method of improving the movement of the wheel was what was required. Hammond and Crandall were thinking along the same lines, but Pratt already had the patent.
So it was that Hammond and Crandall got into a legal battle over winning the rights to Pratt’s designs.
Yet even that is it itself a slightly romantic vision colouring the more tawdry truth. The facts to which typewriter historians have, in the main, tended to turn a blind eye were much more mired in filthy lucre. The outcome of the Hammond-Crandall showdown came in 1878 and was purely and unashamedly commercially motivated. Pratt simply sold out to the highest bidder – to Hammond. Crandall went off and made a different type of type element, a type sleeve (top). And Hammond went with the type shuttle (below).
British typewriter historian Richard Milton is one exception who puts it quite bluntly, on his Portable Typewriters website. “Hammond,” writes Milton, “was an astute businessman and offered Pratt a cash sum and royalty to stay out of the typewriter business, an offer that Pratt accepted. This effectively gave Hammond control of Pratt's patent for the typewheel. Hammond’s first commercial machine appeared by 1884.”
Even that is not quite right. Pratt did not stay out of the typewriter business, far from it. There was a tendency among typewriter historians of another era to record each phase in typewriter development, and its passing, but to ignore the work of the same designer in subsequent years.
Pratt applied for one independent design in his later life, in 1886 (above), just after he had moved to New York, and at a time when the frenzy for designing and building new and very different typewriters was beginning to peak. But beyond the Pterotype, no further Pratt typewriters were ever made. Pratt’s name does live on, nonetheless - though sadly only in the true history of the Hammond, far more so than in any of his own machines.
Pratt died in Chattanooga, on July 21, 1905. He is buried in Centre in a Pratt family cemetery, now known as John Pratt Memorial Park but once known as Pine Knoll.
On this day in 1948, Columbia Records introduced the long-playing record album in a public demonstration at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Typewriters made good use of them.
On this day in 1905, Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris. Sartre was an existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer and literary critic. He was one of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy, particularly Marxism, and was one of the key figures in literary and philosophical existentialism. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature but refused it. He died in Paris on April 15, 1980, aged 74.
On this day in 1912, the American author, critic and political activist Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle. She died, aged 77, in Manhattan on October 25, 1989.
On this day in 1935, the French playwright, novelist and screenwriter Françoise Sagan was born in Cajarc (Lot). She died of a pulmonary embolism in Honfleur, Calvados, on September 24, 2004 at the age of 69. Hailed as "a charming little monster" , Sagan was known for works with strong romantic themes, involving wealthy and disillusioned bourgeois characters. Her best-known novel was her first – Bonjour Tristesse (1954) – which was written when she was a teenager.
On this day in 1948, English novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot. One of Britain's most highly regarded writers, his 2001 Atonement (scene below) became an Oscar-winning film which heavily featured typewriters, particularly in the background music. McEwan, seen here in much younger days with an Olivetti Lettera 32, turns 63 today.