Mrs Hope Simmons at the 1857 Francis typewriter on exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum on July 18, 1928.I was inspired to look into the life of Samuel Ward Francis by this letter, written by Remington Rand publicity manager Gerald K. Hughes to Mrs Ida F. Anthony, of Westfield, New Jersey, in March 1937.
Today* marks the 176th anniversary of the birth in New York of one of history’s most neglected and misrepresented typewriter inventors.
Antique Typewriters, Michael Adler (1997)Samuel Ward Francis was born on this day (December 26) in 1835. He died in Newport, Rhode Island, on March 25, 1886, aged 50. Into that short life of just one half-century, Francis packed an awful lot, as his obituary in The New York Times makes abundantly clear (see below).
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Francis ever finding himself with idle hands.
Quite apart from his 25 years as a physician, Francis patented at least 16 inventions over 22 years and wrote 11 books in 16 years. But what the Times obituary did not mention was his involvement in the early development of what we now know as the typewriter.
On October 27, 1857, aged just 21, University of New York medical undergraduate Samuel W. Francis was issued with a patent for his “Printing Machine”.
It was the first typewriter to have a type guide.
Despite this, Francis has been seriously ill-treated by typewriter historians. Mares (A History of the Typewriter, 1909) and Oden (Evolution of the Typewriter, 1917) both called him “William” Francis.
OdenBeeching (Century of the Typewriter, 1974) couldn’t find a first name and just called him “Dr Francis”. Michael Adler (The Writing Machine, 1973) levelled the charge of plagiarism at him (even Beeching grasped the improbability of this).
AdlerDarryl Rehr (Antique Typewriters, 1997) chose to ignore him completely. ETCetera does not yet appear to have looked at him. Only Thomas A. Russo (Mechanical Typewriters, 2002) did his research and got anywhere near the truth.
Apart from Russo, almost everything that has been written about Francis in typewriter histories has been based on one thing alone: his single typewriter patent.
Invariably, the other historians who did mention Francis got him completely wrong.
HerkimerFrom the time the Herkimer County Historical Society published The Story of the Typewriter in 1923, Francis became “a wealthy physician”. Richard Current in The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954) repeated this claim, adding he “built [his typewriter] primarily to amuse himself.”
CurrentThe maths are simple. Francis was issued with his patent in October 1857. He had, at the time, just graduated from Columbia College and entered the University of New York. He did not become a doctor until 1860, three years later. In 1859-60, he was a member of Professor Valentine Mott's surgical stuff at the university.
He may have been a member of a well-to-do and very well-connected family. But at the tender age of 21, he was hardly wealthy in his own right. And typewriter inventing was no mere indulgence.
The most incredible story comes from Beeching:
It’s impossible to tell where Beeching got his information concerning Francis’ alleged illness, his “spare time” and “idleness”. But the claim that he was “no mechanic” is mocked by Francis’ record of inventions (his range of mechanical knowledge extending to sewing machines and steam engines!):
1857: Printing (writing) machine
1858: Omnibus paying cane
1861: Match safe
1865: Postage and revenue stamp
1867: Visiting card and Oars
1868: (Train) Car heater and ventilator
1874: Combined knife, fork, spoon and Gas lighters
1875: Sewing machine and Fare boxes
1879: Signals for telephone, telegraph linesFrancis was away ahead of his time. Take the “spork” (or “foon”) for example: Wikipedia acknowledges Francis as the pioneer. And Francis’ sled: In a 1992 patent application for a “extendable nesting ski support”, Mark C. Shappell, a Lansing, Michigan, called Francis’ sled as “the closest known art … “ (116 years later!). Russo points out the US Government announced in 1876 it had saved $200,000 (the annual salaries of 254 clerks) by using Francis’ stamp-cancelling device.
Beaumont did not build the Francis typewriter, as Beeching suggests, but as an already experienced printing machine maker had aided and abetted Francis in building his own. Beaumont had invented a rotary printing press in 1853 and a type-distributing machine in 1854.
Printing was in the Francis family blood. Samuel’s father, John Wakefield Francis, had started his working life as an apprentice printer before becoming a physician
Beeching also accuses Francis of falling ”under the fatal fascination of the piano keyboard”. My, oh my, isn’t that where Christopher Latham Sholes’ QWERTY keyboard started out from? And look where that went: we’re still issuing it today! Hardly fatal! Adler points out that most typewriter inventors of this period used piano keys, John Jonathan Pratt among them.
In the Francis machine, 26 white keys were provided for the letters, and the black keys supplied the punctuation and other characters.
Samuel Ward Francis was the son of John Wakefield Francis and Mary Eliza Cutler Francis. He married Harriet Hannah McAllister, the daughter of Judge Matthew Hall McAllister of San Francisco, on June 16, 1859, aged 23. The couple were distant relatives.
Samuel’s father, also born in New York, was in 1811 the first graduate from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. He edited the American Medical and Philosophical Register and became known as New York’s foremost obstetrician. He established the Rutgers Medical College in 1826 and the New York Academy of Medicine in 1846.
Both of John Wakefield Francis’ sons, Valentine Mott Francis (also an author) and Samuel Ward Francis, became doctors.
1859: The Autobiography of a Latin Reader
1860: Report of Professor Valentine Mott’s Surgical Cliniques in the University of New York, Session 1859-60
1861: Water: Its History, Characteristics, Hygienic and Therapeutic Uses
1862: Inside Out: A Curious Book
1866: Biographical Sketches of Distinguished Living New York Surgeon
1867: Biographical Sketches of Distinguished Living New York Physicians
A Christmas Story. Man in His Element or A New Way to Keep House
1871: Life and Death
1874: Curious Facts, Concerning Man and Nature: Part I
1875: Curious Facts, Concerning Man and Nature: Part II
?: Invention of Transparent Treatment