Inventor Abandons QWERTY
Christopher Latham Sholes
Typewriter inventor Christopher Latham Sholes died at his home at 833 Racine Street, Milwaukee, on Monday, February 17, 1890, aged 71. The very next day, no fewer than four applications were filed with the US Patent Office in Washington for Sholes typewriter inventions.
Until the day he died, Sholes kept working on typewriter designs, propped up in bed by a pillow, using his bedroom as his workshop. “Day after day,” Richard Nelson Current visualised some 60 years later, “he experimented with different ideas and different models, which he put together from parts still made for him by the same old Matthias Schwalbach”.
Sholes wrote, “I have not yet changed my spots, and am whacking away at this [an experimental model] in bed with my heels as high as my head, and the machine a trifle higher than either my head or my heels. It is an uncomfortable position in which to run a type-writer, but I regard it as a sort of duty to try it in the most discouraging circumstances.”
No longer discouraged by painful memories of the travails in getting the Sholes & Glidden into production in the early 1870s, in the late 1880s Sholes had regained his passion for typewriters. Not only were the sales of Remingtons soaring, but Sholes was driven by an overriding bitterness: Sholes believed he had been robbed of his just rewards by James Densmore, and set out to invent new machines, so his family might be able to survive on their royalties after his death, He saw it as another duty.
The typewriter patents applied for the day after he died were the last four Sholes had left in the hands of his one-time friend and promoter, Densmore. In the last months of their lives, their winters of discontent (especially with each other), Densmore had pursued Sholes relentlessly to sign the applications for these patents. But Sholes refused to put his signature to them during Densmore’s lifetime.
Three of these four patents were assigned to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, who had taken over the Remington Standard Typewriter Company in 1886, buying all of its rights, titles, interests, franchises, tools and machinery. The three Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict patents included one assigned to them by one of Sholes’s sons, George Budd Sholes, as executor of his father’s deceased estate (he was the oldest son still at home).
Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict
The fourth Sholes patent was assigned to the executors of Densmore’s will: Clarence Walker Seamans (of Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict), one of Densmore’s stepsons (the “loyal” one), Ernest Ryan Barron, and Densmore’s trusted physician, Daniel Curtis Roundy, and therefore by proxy to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict.
Patent #559,621, applied for the day after Sholes died, for a platen rewinding mechanism "to expose the printing-line to view". Assigned to Densmore's executors.
This was Sholes’ last legacy to Densmore, not that it would have been of much use to Densmore by the time it was issued. Densmore had not made any claims to outstanding, unsigned Sholes patents in his will.
Indeed, by the time there was approval for these four and the other five of Sholes’s last nine patents (of 18 all told), they would have been of little use to anyone.
No QWERTY: Try saying, "Xpmchr"! This design, #568630, was applied by Sholes himself in September 1889, and assigned after his death, five months later, to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict. Sholes said it was "designed to increase efficiency".
I won’t dwell on the remaining five at this time, except to say that for at least one, issued on this day (September 29) in 1896, Sholes had - in order to avoid the risk of having to pay royalties on what had been his own keyboard configuration - abandoned QWERTY for a new keyboard arrangement.
With Sholes determined to leave a nest egg for his own family, he presumably kept Densmore in the dark about four of the remaining five patents – Densmore had sighted just one, on New Year’s Eve 1881. This was assigned to Densmore’s executors after Sholes had died, while another was assigned to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict. In his last days, Sholes may have felt freed of Densmore’s great thirst for Sholes designs, yet still “owned” by Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict.
Design #559756, applied for the day after Sholes died, shows a machine with a wide carriage to allow for visible writing. It was assigned to Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict.
In January 1890, Ernest Barron and an attorney representing Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict visited the ailing Sholes in Milwaukee, taking with them models relating to the four still unsigned patents in the hope Sholes would be able to identify them and match them with the patents. Sholes refused to co-operate.
A younger son, Frederick Sholes, then arrived from Chicago and spoke to his father about the patents and the models for some days. On Thursday, February 13, Sholes finally relented and was persuaded to sign off on the patents. Four days later he was dead.
The Fighting Densmore Brothers
James Densmore had died of Bright’s disease (acute or chronic nephritis) at his Brooklyn home at 961 Bedford Avenue almost exactly five months earlier, on September 16, 1889, aged 69.
Rosebud? The day after Sholes died, design #583156 was assigned by Sholes's son George Budd Sholes to Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict.
Two months after Densmore’s death, in November 1889, lawyers for Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict sent Sholes the four patent applications for him to sign. Sholes refused to do so, as he had previously done during Densmore’s lifetime. But the lawyers no doubt felt they were within their rights to ask, as Densmore had, in negotiating a favourable agreement for himself with Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict in 1889, “guaranteed them he would get Sholes’s signature on the documents”.
This design, #559755, was said to have been applied for by Sholes, and assigned to Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, but the application was made the day after Sholes died! Again, Sholes was seeking increased efficiency.
After receiving the lawyers’ request, Sholes wrote to one of Densmore’s younger brothers, Amos Densmore (1825-1898), explaining that, “These devices were made the Lord knows when – I don’t. They seem to be pushed in the interests of the [Remington] Standard Typewriter Company, to whom I suppose James [Densmore] transferred all these interests in part consideration of the profitable settlement he made with them [in his dying days in 1889]. When he was sick at Chicago, some were presented to me to sign, to which I demurred. He at once had a lengthy telegram sent me demanding my signature and stated that my refusal would damage him much, and would not help me any. My son Louis was recently in Brooklyn and called on Mrs Densmore. Among other things, she said Mr D [Densmore] was much disturbed in his illness by my hesitation in signing these papers.”
Densmore saw this design, #558428, for a biconvex typebasket, in 1881, and after Sholes's death it was assigned to Densmore's executors. They wouldn't have got much in the way of royalties for it. Note the keyboard configuration. And compare the shape with the typebasket on the Sholes & Glidden:
Before dying, Densmore had “surrendered all his typewriter properties of every kind to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict … They in return made a generous royalty arrangement with him. This was at last his way to wealth, but the tide of fortune was late in coming in, too late for him to do more than sample the satisfaction of success, too late for him even to be sure he had the fullness of his riches safely within his grasp.” [Richard N. Current, The Typewriter and The Men Who Made It, 1954, p133)
Franz Xaver Wagner
The properties Densmore had surrendered to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict included other Sholes patents, which Densmore had hired Franz Xaver Wagner to “improve and supplement” to make them “of sufficient force to add a good deal to the advantageous settlement he [Densmore] finally made with Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict”.
Densmore had refused to offer Sholes royalties on these patents, but insisted on paying the inventor lump sums. This was the final wedge in what became an irrevocable rift between Densmore and Sholes. They died without patching up their differences.
As things transpired, James Densmore never did get to make his own typewriter. Instead, his brothers Amos and Emmett Densmore lured Wagner away from James to make the Densmore typewriter (1891).
Sholes believed Densmore wanted him to sign off on the last four patents to ensure financial security for his [Denmore’s] family after his death. But, in saying he wanted “considerable more light [put] on the subject”, Sholes added, “He [Densmore] has kept them too long without care, and they have perished on his hands. It is too much to expect me to swear off hand to an infinite and bewildering variety of details having their origin somewhere from eight to twelve years ago – details I have not seen nor heard of from that time to this.”
The more radical of Sholes's later, new designs were kept away from Densmore's reach. This one, #418239, was applied for by Sholes in July 1887 and issued on New Year's Eve 1889, six weeks before his death. The type element on it is what Sholes described as a "polygonal shell". Polygonal is a closed plane figure bounded by three or more line segments.
Sholes was probably right if he felt the four patents were outdated, overtaken by events. Some would seem to contain very little advance on his earlier typewriter inventions, and had almost certainly been rendered irrelevant by typewriter developments led independently by Wagner and Thomas Oliver, particularly in relation to “visible writing”, and Lucien Stephen Crandall and James Bartlett Hammond with type shuttles and sleeves. [Sholes’s 1887 effort was a “polygonal shell”]
There was to be more than a 12-year gap between Sholes typewriter patents being issued – three on August 27, 1878 to one on December 8, 1891. The four in question were not granted until 1896 and 1897.
In his late 1889 letter to Amos Densmore, Sholes went on to express the reasons for his holding out on signing the patents.
“And if by his [James Denmore’s] own negligence he has forfeited or jeopardised his legal rights in the case, it can hardly be expected that I will flax around with much activity – will ‘fash’ [worry, trouble or bother] my weak brain and demoralized nerves, and dangerously strain the oaths required, to help him either to preserve or to increase the lavish fortune left to others, made up largely by stealings from me – while he leaves me, who am really the agent of all that wealth, to starve unless others shall kindly care for me.”
Sholes was overstating the situation. James Densmore was not relying on Sholes signing off on the last four patents to guarantee his own family’s financial well-being. Instead, the one significant, outstanding debt Densmore mentioned in his will was one which was already in the hands of his own lawyers – one involving his former Sholes & Glidden and Typewriter Company partner George Washington Newton Yöst.
The will, dated August 3, 1889 (six weeks before Densmore died) was revealed in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on September 27, 1889, after being filed in the Surrogate's Court. It stated, “His trustees are to continue an arbitration with George W.N.Yöst, of Hartford, Connecticut, respecting stocks held by the testator in the Typewriter Company, of New York.” Densmore left $2500 to Roundy and $15,000 to Ernest Barron. “He then disposes of the stock in arbitration, if it should be decided in his favor, making further provisions in that case for the legatees named.” The executors of Densmore’s will were:
Daniel Curtis Roundy, born at Spafford, New York, on November 22, 1824, died, aged 72, in Chicago, on June 23, 1897. He was a Union army surgeon in the civil war and specialised as an aliphatic physician and was based in Geneva, Wisconsin, for some years.
Ernest Ryan Barron, born in May 1844 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, was the older brother of Walter Jay Barron. Their widowed mother, Adelia Ryan Densmore, married James Densmore in 1864. Walter Barron was involved in the development of the typewriter from 1873 and later worked on the Densmore typewriter with Wagner. Thus Walter’s association with Amos and Emmett Densmore, with whom James had fallen out, probably explains his estrangement from James Densmore at the time of James Densmore making his final will. Walter Barron was excluded from it.
Clarence Walker Seamans was born at Ilion, New York, on June 5, 1854. Seamans began work as a clerk at E. Remington and Sons, where his father was a purchasing agent, at 15. Ten years later he was its "star typewriter salesman" and in 1882 he partnered with Henry Harper Benedict, a Remington director, and William Ozmun Wyckoff, a Remington sales agent, to form Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict. In 1892 they re-formed the Remington Standard Typewriter Company, with Seamans as the treasurer and general manager. A year later, Seamans was made president of the trust, the Union Writing Machine Company. He died at his summer home in Pigeon Cove, Massachusetts on May 30, 1915, aged 60.
*Three of Sholes’s sons were issued with 25 typewriter patents of their own: Frederick 1879, 1880, 1892, 1902, 1904, 1910 (he died in 1935); Zalmon three in 1894, two in 1897, 1900, 1902, 1907, 1908, 1911, two in 1912, two in 1914, 1915 (he died in 1917); Louis 1902, 1906, 1909, 1910 (he died in 1914). George died in 1894 and Charles in 1902.