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Thursday, 11 August 2011

On This Day in Typewriter History (LXXXI)

Silver Screen Goddess saves
Inventor from the Nazis
And grateful American Kids say
thanks with 75 straight asterisks
(Omar Khayyam loves it, too!)
First it was typewriters that played music, then typewriters activated by sound … now talking typewriters! What next?
Actually, like the typewriter activated by sound, these talking typewriters were designed for a very serious and useful purpose: to help young children to read and write. And, at a starting price of $35,000 each, they were not toys. This early automated learning system using electric typewriters also taught reading skills to autistic and mentally handicapped children.
And the man whose patent we are looking at today – it was issued on this day in 1966 – is the major player in an utterly fascinating story. Austrian-born electronics engineer Richard Kobler’s patent relates to a simplified adaptation of his talking typewriter, one which could be used to teach very young children to read, typewrite and take dictation.
By the early 1960s, Kobler had developed several teaching machines, and with his wife Edith was to write Academic Approach to the Treatment of Autism (1971). But his ideas about the didactic power of technology "were consummated with his talking typewriter proving to be so consistently successful".
What makes the talking typewriter tale all the more remarkable is that Kobler, in references for his patent, went all the way back to the very earliest days of the typewriter: to 1881 and a typewriter invention by English-born George McKittrick, of Brooklyn. But more of that later …
Where the Kobler side of the story begins is when he was “rescued” from Europe in 1938 by none other than the glamorous film star Gloria Swanson (above).
Apart from the first talking typewriter, Kobler, an electronics engineer, was to reward Swanson’s humane efforts by devising scores of other contrivances in the US. Among them was the original Televoice, a remote-controlled dictation system which spread worldwide;
the Voicewriter, a remote-controlled dictation device which was installed in large institutions such as hospitals for the dictation of patient records;
and the Rapidial, the first telephone to store and automatically redial frequently used numbers.
The new Rapidial installation in the caller's office at Muskego Yard. The instrument, pictured on the desk in the foreground, is one of 25 experimental models developed by the Thomas A. Edison Industries division of McGraw Edison for the Bell System.
Kobler was “resettled” by Swanson in New York, a life-changing event which was to be recalled when Kobler died at the age of 90, on May 8, 1999, at the JFK Medical Centre in Lake Worth, Florida. He had been living at the time in nearby Delray Beach, where he had settled in 1995 after returning to the US after 25 years in Switzerland.
Kobler was born and studied in Vienna, where he later had a patents office. Along with three other inventors, he had been in danger of the Nazi pogroms when Swanson met him in Vienna. On July 6, 1938, Swanson had formed an inventions and patents company called Multiprises.
Swanson paved the way for the four inventors to evade a concentration camp fate. "I felt I had to do something constructive with my money to justify my existence as a human being," Swanson later wrote.
The operation was dangerous, but Swanson succeeded in bringing the inventors from Austria and Germany: Leopold Karniol, Leopold Neumann, Anton Kratky and Kobler.
After arriving in America, the four were given work in Swanson's company. She also provided them with a factory to manufacture the fruits of their inventions.
Kobler was made European manager of engineering at Multiprises. Karniol was a chemist and plastics expert, Kratky a metallurgist and Neumann an acoustical engineer. Among their successes was the Kratky process of producing hard carbide tools and tips out of cemented carbides. Karniol's process for the manufacture of plastic buttons was exploited through an agreement with the Lindenhurst Manufacturing Company of New Jersey. Neumann made recordings for the blind and dictating machine equipment.
However, although the firm survived the war, it did so with little significant contribution to the war effort, and Swanson shut Multiprises down.
Kobler moved on to work for Thomas A. Edison Industries  as its vice-president and director of its laboratories. Swanson maintained regular contact and correspondence with him until 1980, just three years before she died.
Kobler did much of his inventing at the Edison Research Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. His patents for the talking typewriter were assigned to the McGraw-Edison Company of Elgin, Illinois. McGraw-Edison was created by the 1957 acquisition by McGraw Electric (founded 1900) of Thomas A. Edison Industries (founded 1911).
In 1960, Kobler led an Edison engineering group that developed the research instrument that was turned into the talking typewriter.
In developing the talking typewriter, Kobler worked alongside Utah-born Omar Khayyam Moore (above), described by Time magazine on November 7, 1960, as a then 40-year-old “chain-smoking Yale sociologist with a theory even more striking than his name”.
Time quoted Moore as saying, “It is possible for children aged two to five to type, read, write and take dictation”. For the previous two years Moore had been “proving his point in an experiment at his tiny Yale lab. By letting two-year-olds ‘play’ with an electric typewriter, Moore gets them reading at second-grade level within six months. His explanation: ‘The intellectual capabilities and interests of young children have been seriously underestimated’.”
Time explained the machine thus: “As the child strikes typewriter keys, an instructor names the character printed. (One delighted child hit the asterisk key 75 times to test his teacher's stamina.) Sitting beside his ‘student’ in a gadget-filled booth, which has 60-odd switches to pique the child's curiosity, the instructor also projects the chosen letters on a screen. After each half-hour typing session, the child prints the letters on a blackboard, soon works up to complete words and eventually to sentences.
“Grasping the logic of these symbols, says Moore, the child next begins typing simple stories from film strips, later talks his own stories into a tape recorder and types them as well. About all the teacher does is correct punctuation with as little overt ‘teaching’ as possible.
“Actually, the child has less control than he thinks; he is being taught touch-typing as he experiments. His fingernails are painted various colours and so are the keys corresponding to the fingers that should hit them. With his own on-off switch to the electric typewriter, the teacher sees to it the child produces a letter only when the right finger strikes the right key.”
The full Time article can be read at:,9171,826737,00.html
One organisation which adopted the Kobler-Moore methods called its program "Our Kids Keyboard". “[It] enables very young kids to begin learning the alphabet - the building blocks for life-long reading and writing skills. Utilising centuries old flash card methods, back in the 60s Dr Omar K. Moore built a 'talking typewriter’. Ordinary kids were reading, on average, at the 7th grade level by the 2nd grade!"
This organisation’s founder read about Dr Moore in an article written by C.P. Gilmore in The Saturday Evening Post of November 20, 1965. “Our Kids Keyboard flagship was inspired by Dr Omar Khayyam Moore's inventively self-teaching – [a] talking typewriter which originally cost $35,000 in 1962. Moore's advanced teaching method was a Carnegie Foundation grant.”
The full Saturday Evening Post article can be read at:
It’s well worth a look.
In part, it says, “The founder and director of this experimental - and highly controversial - school is Dr Omar Khayyam Moore, a small, wiry 45-year-old professor of social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh … Moore and an engineer [Kobler] designed an ingenious machine that combined an electric typewriter, a miniature computer and a tape recorder.
“The first large-scale test of this machine came in 1961, when the Carnegie Corporation of New York financed a three-year experimental project at a private school in Hamden.
“Moore explains the typewriter's extraordinary success by pointing out that very young children become highly motivated to learn when they are allowed to make their own discoveries. He also feels there is no greater deterrent to learning than the fear of making a mistake. So the children discover that when the make an error, nothing happens. The typewriter never scolds; it is never impatient.
“Moore's machine may hold unexpected promise for seriously disturbed children too. One six-year-old had never spoken, and several psychiatrists recommended that he be sent to a mental institution. In desperation, doctors at the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, New York, decided to try the talking typewriter. The child seemed fascinated by the machine, and after several months he suddenly began to talk. He is far from cured, but it now appears that he may go to school instead of an institution. 'The machine's potential may be even more enormous than we suspected,' says Dr Mary Goodwin, a paediatrician.
“Perhaps the typewriter's greatest achievement is the way it allows a young child's imagination to soar by quickly and painlessly helping him or her overcome the reading and writing hurdle. Sometimes the child's creative imagination reaches truly wondrous heights …"

Kobler and Moore achieved their success with a series of patents, only one of which we are looking at today. It is titled “Audio Typewriter”. Kobler filed the application on December 3, 1963.
Kobler explained, “the invention relates to a novel apparatus which can be coupled to a standard typewriter to pronounce each character as the same is typed. The present audio typewriter is useful, especially in the educational field as a self-teaching aid for enabling children at an early age to learn to recognise and pronounce the symbols on the keyboard of a typewriter as well as to learn dexterity in operating a typewriter keyboard.”
Kobler was able to achieve his ends by adapting a design which Brooklyn law stenographer George McKittrick (born Sheffield, England, May 23, 1842) had patented on April 5, 1881, more than 85 years earlier.
This related to the ability to stop the typewriter so as to ensure the child using it depressed the correct key before the typewriter would continue to write.
Michael Adler in his Antique Typewriters (1997) dismissed the McKittrick invention as “a machine with a two-row keyboard controlling a rotating pin barrel”. But there appears to be much more to it than that.
In his patent application of June 18, 1880, McKittrick explained his use of a typewheel with what he called a “cylinder having a spiral range of stop-pins”. “This is revolved automatically, and a range of stops acted upon by keys serve to stop the cylinder and typewheel at the corresponding letter. An elastic-faced roller in a swinging frame is brought up to give the impression upon the paper that passes around such roller. The roller and its frame are moved endwise upon a screw, and the roller is partially turned between one line and the next.”

Another vital component of the Kobler talking typewriter came from a patent for a key guides typing aid issued to Fred and Philip Pirnat of Colorado Springs in 1941.
This used small steel balls to prevent keys from jamming. The Pirnats explained their objective was to “eliminate jamming of the key levers by allowing only one key to be depressed at a time”. This would be achieved by providing a bar “adapted to maintain the proper clearance, which is the thickness of one key lever, so that only one key lever may go between the steel balls of the device at a time.” This idea can be seen in use in Kobler's 1966 design.

Richard Kobler and Omar K. Moore were issued with two joint patents, one in December 1963 for an “Educational apparatus for children” and the other in November 1966 for an “Educational system and apparatus”. Both were assigned to McGraw-Edison.
In the original 1963 patent (above), the inventors explained that the objective “a self-training aid for children to enable a child to develop his basic faculties to an unusually high degree at a very early age.
“The apparatus in accordance with the invention is of the keyboard type comprising a specially constructed typewriter provided with safeguarding means to enable only one key to be depressed at a time and to enable a successive key to be pressed only after the child has performed a related act and/or received a response to the character selected.”
A related patent had been issued in 1964 to William G. Whitney and Bruce N. Whitlock, also working for McGraw-Edison, for a “Multi-track record-reproduce system with servo controlled track selector”.
An interesting two-and-a-half minutes-long 1967 film about the use of the talking typewriter can be found at
It’s a documentary about Project Breakthrough from the office of Economic Opportunity Community Action Program to teach pre-school children language skills in Cooks County, Illinois. It’s explained as a talking typewriter to teach children from poor families the ability to relate words to pictures and increase their communication skills. One of the project officials Pamela Jung speaks about how the talking typewriter helps children to learn in a responsive situation. An official says that the children are chosen from low-income families.
The Kobler-Moore talking typewriter got a lot of positive publicity around 1965, including this article in Popular Science:
The only talking typewriter I have in my collection is this one, which runs off batteries and does a pretty good job:


Richard P said...

An inspiring story. Hooray for Gloria Swanson! And the talking typewriter anticipates all sorts of interactive learning machines (and apps) that kids enjoy today.

Robert Messenger said...

Thanks, Richard. Yes, Gloria Swanson went way up in my estimation. I wonder how the talking typewriter 'experiment' is appraised by educationalists today?
It got a bit of flak back then, mainly on the grounds of teaching too young.