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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Sholes' Vision

Christopher Latham Sholes certainly had vision. After all, he gave us the typewriter. Yet in the northern summer of 1878, he wrote a letter on his prototype portable typewriter to James Densmore's brother Amos, saying the typewriter enterprise he had started in 1867 would be dead by 1883. "The trouble [with it] is just where I have always placed it - to wit: that the machine, taking everything into account, is not a labor-saving machine. The public doesn't need it - doesn't want it. It doesn't sell itself ... If you recollect, I gave 5 years for the enterprize to play out in. It will in less time."
Sholes thought he was dying and wouldn't even see the end of the enterprise. But as to his forecast about the typewriter's longevity, he was of course dead wrong. One hundred and thirty-seven years later, the typewriter is still being made.
Only a few months before writing this exceedingly pessimistic letter to Amos Densmore, Sholes believed he was "big with prophecy". And indeed he was.
In July 1877 Sholes' lungs began to bleed. After a serious relapse that September, he decided to escape another Milwaukee winter and join his son Clarence Gordon "Cass" Sholes (1845-1926) in Colorado. In November he spent a few weeks recuperating at the foot of Pikes Peak in Manitou.
Sholes returned to Manitou Springs in February 1878, in time to celebrate his 59th birthday there. He resigned from the Milwaukee board of public works, hoping and praying what little money that came in from the typewriter enterprise would be enough to keep him going.
He stayed on in Colorado through the spring, his mind following a chain of thought that had started with the news of the invention of Thomas Edison's phonograph.
Sholes saw a future in which newspapers would be obsolete. Daily news would be recorded on tinfoil cylinders and then reproduced on a clockwork mechanism in every home. "While the family breakfasted or dined, the children and the older folk alike would become well informed in spite of themselves. The correspondence and records of business offices would be served by the same mechanical magic, and so the typewriter would be eliminated along with the printing press."
Sound familiar? Yes, Sholes might have been very wrong about the typewriter and its ability to survive beyond 1883. But in the spring of 1878, in Manitou Springs, he envisaged 2015, with a clarity that matched the crisp Colorado air around him.  


Ted said...

The printing press isn't quite gone either, but I've seen a lot of them sent to scrapyards or Mexico in the past couple of decades. What passes for pressmen these days are usually keyboard jockeys with spotless hands. /:

Bill M said...

Maybe not quite all typewriters and printing presses gone, but the PC sure has brought about quite a bit of his vision to be true.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Sholes didn't predict the technology of radio, but he did predict its use. I find his prediction quite accurate as a vision of society in, say, 1935. Less so in 2015, when people are probably consuming more text and images than sound, but they are doing so individually -- each member of the family curled up with his or her own device.

Richard P said...

That last comment was by me, Richard. Don't know why it came out as "Anonymous"!

Robert Messenger said...

I probably read the words more broadly, not so much confined to radio or sound but of people becoming "well informed in spite of themselves", which rightly or wrongly put me in mind of social media etc.
The "anonymous" problem may have been caused at this end, as I've had to make some changes (not all of them successful as yet) as a result of someone in Launceston, Tasmania, trying to log in as me and hack into my site this morning.

Mark Wilkinson said...

Where do I find the serial number on s Lettera 22?