This photograph of Thomas Alva Edison, taken in his West Orange office for Popular Science Monthly on March 19, 1921, appeared with a story by Raymond Francis Yates in the July issue of the magazine. Yates had borrowed the Sholes & Glidden typewriter from the Remington Typewriter Company especially for the interview.
In March 1921 the dogs were barking on the streets of America that Thomas Alva Edison had been the original inventor of the typewriter. It didn’t sound all that surprising a claim – after all, Edison had invented practically everything else, why not the typewriter as well? And if the dogs had been able to read, they might have been armed with the additional knowledge that on this day (December 10) in 1872, Edison was issued with a patent for a “type writing machine”. Yes, that’s almost three months before E.Remington & Sons signed a contract to produce the Sholes & Glidden.
Edison's 1872 "type writing machine"
The yelping of the dogs in 1921 became so pronounced that on March 19, engineer and editor Raymond Francis Yates, commissioned by Popular Science Monthly, confronted Edison in his lair at Llewellyn Park, West Orange, New Jersey. Excuse my mixed four-legged metaphors here, but Yates wanted to get the word straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.
Yates was also editor of Everyday Engineering magazine
Yates marched into Edison's office carrying with him a Sholes & Glidden typewriter, which Yates had somehow managed to convince the Remington Typewriter Company to lend him just for this occasion.
“Do you recognise the old machine?” Yates asked Edison.
“Yes,” replied Edison. “It is the same machine I worked on. I remember the hard time I had getting the keys in alignment. That was a nasty job …”
Yates eventually came to the point:
“Mr Edison, do you know that some people credit you with the invention of the typewriter?”
“That is wrong,” said Edison [“with emphasis”, added Yates in his report of the meeting in the July edition of Popular Science Monthly].
“Sholes invented the typewriter,” Edison went on, “and he deserves all the credit he gets. Most inventors don’t get the credit they deserve.
“I did practically nothing to improve the machine - although I did build 12 of them for D.H.Craig, who had obtained the right to manufacture them from Sholes.”
Bear in mind this denouement took place 50 years after the period to which Edison was referring, and Edison had just a month earlier celebrated his 74th birthday. He was emphatic about not inventing the typewriter, and not improving it, and rightly so. But did he actually build Sholes & Gliddens for Craig? His memory may well have been unreliable on this point. For one obvious thing, Sholes could not have given the manufacturing rights to Craig, since he did not have been himself: James Densmore and George Washington Newton Yōst did.
It was Densmore and Yōst who engineered the March 1, 1873, deal with E.Remington & Sons. Not even the diligent and dependable Sholes biographer Richard Nelson Current (The Typewriter and The Men Who Made It, 1954) can be fully replied upon to reveal the true details of the first meeting between Edison and Sholes. This took place in the oil brokerage office of James Densmore's younger brother, Emmett Densmore on Cedar Street, Lower Manhattan, on October 1, 1870.
Current opens Chapter 5 of his book, “Most Cussed Luck”, saying the meeting was organised by Alanson Sweet, “an old acquaintance of Sholes’s”. Current is almost certainly wrong on this point. He says Sweet was “superintendent of the Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Company”. In fact, the superintendent of the Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Company at that time was another man called Sweet, E.D.L.Sweet. It’s much more likely that Sholes (1819-1890) knew E.D.L.Sweet (1825-1912) than Allanson Sweet (1804-1891). Although Allanson Sweet was also a Democrat, and had been a leading citizen of Milwaukee since becoming one of the early settlers there in 1835, he had moved to a farm near Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1871. Allanson Sweet was never involved in the telegraphic industry and had long since stopped working for a living. He was a wealthy grain trader, promoter and politician, well free from slavery to the dollar.
E.D.L.Sweet joined the Chicago and North-Western Railroad Company in 1860 and four years later became superintendent of all the company’s telegraph lines, headquartered in Chicago. He took charge of the extension of the company’s lines into northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin and Iowa. Although he resigned from this work in 1868, it seems possible he would have had contact with Mid West newspaper editor Sholes in the early 1860s. Significantly, this Sweet was a mentor for George H.Bliss, a telegrapher, manufacturer and investor in the Western Electric Manufacturing Company in Chicago who had been put in charge of the company’s marketing by Anson Stager. Edison had an exclusive contract with Western Electric to handle the manufacturing and selling of his electric pen, as Edison had considerable faith in Western Electric’s manufacturing capabilities.
It’s possible Current may also have been getting confused between Allanson Sweet and Anson Stager (1825-1885), who certainly did have dealings with Sholes, which Current outlines. Stager, a Union Army general and head of the Military Telegraph Department in the Civil War, was a co-founder and general superintendent of Western Union and, from 1869, the first president of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. He was also president of the Chicago Telephone Company and president of the Western Edison Company, and secured a consolidation of the two.
Whoever it was wrote to Sholes in August 1870 suggesting a proposition for Sholes’s typewriter, James Densmore was at first reluctant to sweet talk with this Sweet (or Stager). Densmore did not believe the Sholes typewriter was yet ready for exhibition. At the same time, Sweet was talking in terms of a $100,000 deal, and Densmore and Sholes loved nothing more than the thought of finally seeing some cash for their efforts.
Sweet said he was acting as a go-between for “interested parties” and the meeting was arranged for October 1. Densmore armed himself with the power of attorney for co-typewriter patentees Carlos Glidden and Samuel Willard Soulé, and testimonials from the like of Charles Edward Weller, and in New York met Sholes, who had lugged the typewriter with him from Milwaukee.
Sweet’s “interested parties” turned out to be George Harrington (1815-1892), just returned from US diplomatic duties in Switzerland, and Daniel Hutchins Craig (1811-1895), a founder and general manager of Associated Press.
Harrington was a clerk in the United States Treasury Department during the James Knox Polk administration, assistant secretary of the Treasury under his friend Salmon Portland Chase, and minister to Switzerland from July 1865 to July 1869.
These two brought along with them to the meeting with Sholes and Densmore one Thomas Alva Edison, then just 23.
A young Thomas Edison
Across the Hudson in Newark earlier that very same day, Harrington and Edison had signed an agreement to form the Automatic Telegraphic Works Company, to provide Edison with funds for experiments on the machine for which he was to be issued a patent on this day in 1872.
Edison's 1872 "type writing machine"
Edison and Craig had signed an agreement on August 3, “to invent an improved perforator for automatic telegraphy”.
Edison was introduced to Sholes and Densmore as Harrington’s and Craig’s “expert” to examine the Sholes typewriter. Edison was seeking a means of printing telegraphic messages for his system and Harrington and Craig believed the Sholes typewriter “might fit into his plans”. There is a suggestion that Craig, in particular, wanted to pit the inventive skills of Sholes against those of Edison, to see which one of them could come up with the correct device quickest.
Christopher Latham Sholes
Harrington, Craig and Edison left the meeting taking the Sholes & Glidden with them, but leaving no firm commitment to buy the rights to manufacture it.
(According to Edison, he and Sholes met just one more time, in 1873. Surprisingly, Current does not mention this in his book, but does say that between May and July 1873, Sholes spent some time in New York. Edison told Yates that Sholes had called on him, but stressed to Yates that Sholes had not done so seeking any advice from Edison. “He simply called as a brother inventor,” said Edison. “Sholes was a remarkable man.”)
Edison's Automatic Telegraph "typewriter"
Edison’s problem with the Sholes & Glidden, as it was in 1870, concerned its inability to handle rolls of paper, as opposed to single slips. Sholes was worried Edison might steal some of his machine's features, but meanwhile set about re-designing his typewriter to come up with the so-called “axle” machine. This new prototype had a four-bank keyboard (QWERTY came later, in November 1872). It was to remain Sholes’s preferred version, but would in 1872 be abandoned in favour of the “treadle” or “continuous roll” typewriter. By mid-1871, Sholes and Densmore agreed the typewriter was ready to go into production. Twenty-five were made.
The Edison 'typewriter' at the Philadelphia Centenary Exhibition in 1876
Edison, Craig and Harrington had been busily plotting behind Sholes’s back. On January 31, 1871, Craig wrote to Edison. “Please explain to Mr Harrington that you can make a note form printer at short notice, and ... it must print faster & much better than can possibly be done by the levers or arms plan of Sholes. My idea is that it is a decided object for us to have the control of the Sholes machine, provided it costs little or nothing-but if not, not- and of course, relying upon your inventive head to work us through when and as may be necessary.”
This is what Edison wrote typing on the Sholes & Glidden at the meeting in New York on October 1, 1870. It was later found in an Edison scrapbook.
To take an each-way bet, in the northern spring of 1871, Harrington and Craig had placed an order for five of the Sholes machines for the Automatic Telegraph Works Company, advancing $100 for them. These are almost certainly the Sholes & Gliddens to which Edison referred in his 1921 interview. Within a few months of the order, Edison had failed to meet a deadline for his typewheel printer.
By this stage Harrington and Craig had already broken off negotiations with Densmore. Harrington told Densmore that “his electrician” Edison “has invented a machine that he says will answer their purpose”.
“Still,” wrote Densmore to his brother Amos, “he [Harrington] still says he thinks our invention will be better for general use than his; though he says that Edison says that [his machine] will be yet developed so that everybody will want it, and Harrington adds with a great deal of emphasis that Edison never yet has failed to do what he says he can.
“I do not believe Edison’s machine will compare with ours, but of course I may be mistaken. But there stands the possible opposition, and the still possible beating of [our machine by] this invention. I cannot here explain it, but I think it [Edison’s machine] will be a failure, but no one else is to be supposed to feel as I do about it.”
Both Harrington and Densmore were to be proved correct - and much sooner than either would have expected. Edison’s machine was to be no “general purpose” success. The Automatic Telegraph Works Company went out of business in early January 1873 and was taken over by Atlantic & Pacific, which in turn in 1875 fell prey to the notorious Jason “Jay” Gould, who also grabbed control of Western Union in 1881. Harrington spent much of 1874-77 in the courts, fighting off, among others, Craig, Gould, A&PT and Western Union. “Protracted litigation” would be an understatement. Edison was more concerned with protecting his patent rights. Edison moved on to developing a Roman letter automatic telegraph for Harrington and Joshiah Custer Reiff, who tried to form a new company in 1874. Again it was a flop.
As Edison eventually would do too, Sholes and Densmore put the Automatic Telegraph fiasco behind them; for Sholes and Densmore, it was just one more setback on the path to what would be their ultimate success. They had no time to lament it, and no other option but to forge forward.
Despite Harrington having cut off communications with Densmore, in the northern winter of 1871-72 Sholes went on working on his improved machine, specifically to meet Harrington’s demand that it use a continuous roll of paper.
One of the typewriters produced under Densmore’s supervision (with Matthias Schwalbach as foreman) at a canal-side mill in Milwaukee in the northern summer of 1872 was sent by Sholes to Densmore’s stepson Walter Jay Barron in New York, to be given to Craig. This was one of the first typewriters to employ the QWERTY keyboard. Sholes thought it the best typewriter he had made.
Other machines produced at this time won the praises of Chicagoans, detective Allan Pinkerton and Edward Payson Porter, proprietor of the National Telegraph College, and Barron’s commercial typing service Washington partner, stenographer James Ogilvie Clephane.
Porter gave a convincing demonstration of the virtues of the typewriter at the offices of the Western Union while at Densmore’s request Sholes demonstrated the machine for Anson Stager and his partner Enos Melancthon Barton (1842-1916) at Western Electric.
Legend has it that it was Barton, a college-educated telegrapher from Rochester, who suggested Remington to Sholes as a possible manufacturer, adding that Western Electric would assist in the design and become the machine’s exclusive sales agent in north-western states. Duly Remington did deliver 500 machines to Chicago in the northern summer of 1874, and these were sold for $125 each.
The consensus, however, holds that it was George Washington Newton Yōst who suggested Remington to Densmore, in December 1872.
The rest, at least for the Sholes & Glidden, is history. But this was a history which, when he wrote the specifications for his “type writing machine” in 1872, Edison could not have foreseen. As Current wrote in The Typewriter and The Men Who Made It, Edison used his patent application to belittle the Sholes machine, clearly implying his design was vastly superior.
Edison wrote, “This invention is for printing by a typewheel in a line upon a sheet or web of paper and then moving such paper along so as to print upon the line below. This invention is divided into the following principal features: First, mechanism for arresting a revolving typewheel with the designated letter in position to be printed; second, the means for moving the typewheel along between one impression and the next; third, mechanism for bringing the typewheel back from the end of one line so as to commence at the beginning of the next; fourth, the devices for impressing the paper on the typewheel; fifth, the feeding devices that move the paper the distance between one line and the next. By moving the typewheel along the line and across the paper the parts are simplified and rendered more compact than in those machines in which the paper has been moved; hence a roll or web of paper can be employed, and a telegraphic message printed thereon by hand, and cut off, instead of writing out the same, as now usual.”
The reality was that Edison’s machine was more complicated and slower than Sholes’s.
(In fairness to Edison, his device did eventually turn into a stockmarket ticker-tape machine.)
Yet by 1921, less than a mere half-century after events in Milwaukee, and later at Menlo Park, Yates had become aware of “persistent rumours afloat” that Edison had invented the typewriter.
This unquestionably was, at least to a large extent, what motivated the Herkimer County Historical Society and Typewriter Topics to in 1923 mark the 50th anniversary of Sholes’s achievement. It was their way of ensuring that Sholes got the credit where credit was due.
The Herkimer County Historical Society meticulously researched and published The Story of the Typewriter 1873-1923 and Typewriter Topics assembled A Condensed History of the Writing Machine to be “published in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the US typewriter industry”.
As the Herkimer County Historical Society said, “It has been said of this universal inventive genius [Edison] that he has figured in some way in connection with nearly every development in the field of mechanical progress during the last half century …” No wonder people came to believe this included the typewriter. The truth is, Edison made very little or no contribution to the early development of the typewriter we’ve all come to know and love.
Michael Adler wrote of the Edison machine in Antique Typewriters (1974): “As in so many of Edison’s patents, the instrument had few if any strictly original features …”