SIR EBENEZER HOWARD:
URBAN PLANNING VISIONARY
AND TYPEWRITER INVENTORTo the best of my knowledge, no inventor has ever been knighted for his services to typewriters. Englishman Sir Ebenezer Howard, however, was truly a knight of the realm, principally for being such a great visionary in terms of what would today be called “green” urban planning. And one of the enduring passions of Howard’s life was tinkering with typewriters.
In both his foresight for the environment, and his ideas for the typewriter, Howard was way ahead of his time. Yet while there are busts and plaques in Howard's honour all over England, there is nothing to show for his typewriter inventing.
Howard eventually succeeded in producing a typewriter, of sorts – a shorthand typewriter called the Phonotyp (in 1924). But it had taken him 50 years to get there.
In 1876, Howard, while living in America, made a series of visits to E. Remington and Sons at their typewriter factory in Ilion, New York. He had come up with a means of adapting the Sholes and Glidden and the immediately subsequent Remingtons for variable spacing and perfect alignment. He also wanted to come to a deal to import Remingtons into Britain.
The people he met at Remington listened to what Howard had to say, looked at his designs, and made him a proposition. In the goodness of time, they said, they might get to his inventions. That wasn’t good enough, according to Howard. So he went back home to England, still holding his plans – and no typewriters.
Some time later, Remington contacted Howard with a revised offer, and asked him to return across the Atlantic with his designs.
But Howard’s workshop had just burned down, and there was nothing he could do about it. He said he could not spare the time or the money to resurrect his work. Had it not been for that stroke of ill fortune, the typewriter might well have broken the ”grid” of monospace printing 60 years before that achievement did eventually arrive, in 1941.
In the meantime, Howard hadn’t given up on typewriters. We are looking at his life and typewriter designs today because it was on this day in 1886 that Howard was issued with a US patent for improvements to his variable spacing invention.
Ebenezer Howard was born on Fore Street, City of London, on January 29, 1850. He is best known today for his 1898 work To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, (reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow).
This was Howard’s manifesto for a utopian futuristic city, in which people would live harmoniously together with nature. Howard’s book was an instant success – its immediate impact was the initiation of a philosophy that realised two garden cities in Great Britain in the early part of the 20th century, Letchworth and Welwyn.
Howard was educated in Suffolk and Hertfordshire and worked as a clerk before, in 1871, emigrating with two friends to America. He tried farming in Nebraska, then went to Chicago, where he used his London experience and knowledge of shorthand to work as a reporter for the courts and newspapers. He became acquainted with, and admired, poets Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also became acquainted with, and admired, the first typewriter, the Sholes and Glidden.
On his return to England later in 1876, Howard found a job with Hansard, the company which produces the official verbatim record of Parliament, and he spent the rest of his life in that occupation.
Howard read widely, including Edward Bellamy's 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward and Henry George's economic treatise Progress and Poverty, and thought much about social issues. He didn't like the way modern cities were being developed, and believed people should live in places that combined the best aspects of city and country life.
His book described cities free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both city (opportunity, amusement and good wages) and country (beauty, fresh air and low rents). He illustrated the idea with his famous Three Magnets diagram (below).
It proposed the creation of new suburban towns of limited size, planned in advance, and surrounded by a permanent belt of agricultural land. Howard proposed that such “Garden Cities” would be largely independent, managed by the citizens who had an economic interest in them, and financed by ground rents on the Georgist model. The land on which they were to be built was to be owned by a group of trustees and leased to the citizens.
Through his association with Henry Harvey Vivian and the co-partnership housing philosophy, his ideas attracted enough attention and funding to begin Letchworth Garden City, a suburban north of London. Welwyn Garden City, was started after World War I.
The creation of Letchworth and Welwyn were influential in the development of "New Towns" by the British Government after World War II. This produced more than 30 communities, the first being Stevenage, Hertfordshire (about halfway between Letchworth and Welwyn), and the last (and largest) being Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Walt Disney used elements of Howard's concepts in his original design for the EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Howard was an enthusiastic speaker of Esperanto, often using the language for his speeches.
In his first typewriter patent, issued in England on July 5, 1884, and applied for in the US on October 8, 1884, Howard said “spaces between the various letters and characters can be equalized or varied according to pleasure … My machine is intended to provide for narrower spaces between letters occupying little room, and for wider spaces between letters occupying much room, and for normal spaces between letters of normal width, so that, finally, when the printing is completed, the actual blank spaces between the letters printed will be substantially alike.”
In the patent issued on this day in 1886, Howard specified his objective as being variable spacing.
More than 37 years later, on August 13, 1923, Howard applied for a patent for his shorthand machine.
“The object of this machine is to enable shorthand to be more quickly and easily learned, and more rapidly and legibly written, than has been possible with pen or pencil, or with any shorthand machine hitherto produced. It will, I believe, prove as great an advance in these respects as is the typewriter over ordinary longhand writing.”
The keyboard had 96 in 12 columns of eight.
Howard was granted the patent on June 16, 1925.
Less than three years later, on May 1, 1928, he died, aged 78, in one of his garden cities, Welwyn.
British novelist Jack Higgins, seen here with his Adler Tippa, was born Harry Patterson in Newcastle upon Tyne on this day in 1929. As Higgins, most of Patterson’s books have been thrillers of various types and, since his breakthrough novel The Eagle Has Landed in 1975, nearly all have been bestsellers. The Eagle Has Landed sold more than 50 million copies. He turns 82 today.
Ebenezer Howard was the first urbanist I learned of in the degree program I completed in 2009. This is a fascinating glimpse into his other interests. Thanks for doing all this research.
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