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Sunday 18 November 2012

On This Day in Typewriter History: The True Story of Charles Thurber

PART 179
Typewriter collectors and historians will know that the Caligraph is a typewriter developed by George Washington Newton Yōst (among others) to become the first challenger to the Remington machines. According to Richard Current in his thoroughly-researched The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954), the Caligraph was named by Sholes & Glidden promoter and one-time Yōst partner James Densmore.
If, as Current suggests, Densmore sold the idea to Yōst on the grounds that the word meant “beautiful writer”, then Densmore knew his ancient Greek. The stems are kallos (κάλλος, “beauty”) and graph (γραφή, “to write"), making kaligraphia, or, as we know it today, calligraphy, a word to describe the decorative art of handwriting and lettering which dates from the early 17th century.
What might surprise typewriter historians is that Densmore and Yōst were not the first to use the word in relation to a writing machine.
Charles Thurber was, in 1857 and again in 1860. In 1857, when he was still living in Worcester, Massachusetts, Thurber patented a “Calligraph”, and then in 1860, after he had moved to Brooklyn, he patented improvements, changing the name of his machine to “Caligraph”.
Both of these patents are obviously complete reworkings of Thurber’s 1845 “Mechanical Chirographer”.
Thurber, too, knew his ancient languages: he was, after all a Latin teacher for many years. Like calligraphy, chirography comes from the Greek but is derived from Latin. It describes the study of penmanship and handwriting. Thurber titled his 1857 "Calligraph" patent "Penmanship".
It is very interesting that, until now, all typewriter (and other) historians have concentrated on Thurber’s first two patents, for the “Patent Printer” in 1843 and the Mechanical Chirographer” in 1845, and completely ignored the two later patents. It would seem as if, once Thurber moved from a type plunger machine (the “Patent Printer”) to a machine which reproduced handwriting in a “typewritten” form (the “Mechanical Chirographer”), historians lost interest in him.
The 1843 Thurber "Patent Printer" with cylinder platen
Darryl Rehr did an enormous amount of research into Thurber and his machines – perhaps more than anyone else has before or since – for some of the early editions of ETCetera: No 12 in September 1990 and No 42 in March 1998. Yet surprisingly, when it came to “A Short History of Typewriters” in his Antique Typewriters (1997), Rehr dismissed Thurber in a mere four words. It’s astonishing, given how much work Rehr had done on Thurber. It seems almost as if Rehr, based on what he had by then come to know, considered Thurber almost irrelevant to the story.
From Current's The Typewriter and The Men Who Made It
Could this have been because, in his 1990 article on Thurber for ETCetera, Rehr had finally and fully exposed the awful truth about Thurber’s contribution to the development of the typewriter? Or should I say non-contribution? Thurber's role had been, it would appear, previously over-rated. It turns out the two pieces of “evidence” of Thurber “typewriting” by using his 1843 “Patent Printer” weren’t written on this machine at all; they were “handwritten” using the “Mechanical Chirographer”. There is no surviving evidence, in other words, that the “Patent Printer” had actually worked (unlike William Austin Burt’s 1829 “typopgrapher”), while there was ample evidence the Thurber Mechanical Chirographer” worked very successfully (if, by Thurber’s own admission, with a few teething problems).
All of which might explain why Thurber’s subsequent patents have been completely ignored by typewriter historians. As I have mentioned on this blog before, there has been a tendency, once a “breakthrough” period in an inventor’s career has been covered, to move on to the next inventor and to not bother with any subsequent work. A classic example of this is John Jonathan Pratt.
In Rehr’s second ETCetera article, written eight years after the first (but while he was still editor of the journal), Rehr concentrated on the second piece of Thurber “typewriting” evidence, the letter written in 1846 to Sarah Wheelock. He referred to the “long-lived misconception that the extant letters were written on Thurber’s other (and more well-known) invention, the Patent Printer of 1843 … nothing more needs to be said here.”
"Your Pater" is Gershom Wheelock, of Shrewsbury
I do sometimes wonder whether Rehr gave up the cause in absolute frustration that his overwhelmingly convincing presentation of the facts in 1990 made practically no difference – most people just chose to go on believing Thurber had left irrefutable proof of typewriting from his “Patent Printer” – simply because it looked like typewriting.
I thoroughly recommend downloading Rehr’s 1990 ETCetera article here and reading it closely. I don’t think it leaves much doubt.  The issue is all in black-and-white (as is Rehr's argument) and the download is a mere 4.47MB. One slightly relevant correction to it is that Albert E.Fay (1876-), who wrote Charles Thurber and Worcester’s Contribution to the Invention of the Typewriter in 1920, was throughout his life a Worcester patent attorney. He had no known connection with Remington.
In the March 1927 edition of Popular Science Monthly, the associate examiner of the United States Patent Office, Aubrey D.McFadyen, made these observations about Thurber's work:
Among documents later compounding the Thurber misconception was an article by Terry Abraham titled “Charles Thurber: Typewriter Inventor” which was published by the Society for the History of Technology in 1980. Abraham opened his article thus:
But it has to be conceded this was written 10 years before Rehr’s investigation into the truth of the matter.
Given what Abraham called a “paucity of documentation”, I am surprised these two later Thurber patents are not, to be the best of my knowledge, mentioned in any histories of writing machines. They are clear evidence that Thurber did not abandon his ideas in 1845, as has been widely suggested, but that 13 years later he pressed on with the “Mechanical Chirographer” (or Calligraph/Caligraph), further still after he moved to Brooklyn.
Thurber's 1860 Caligraph
These were easy enough for me to find as I researched Thurber’s inventions to mark the 167th anniversary of the “Mechanical Chirographer” – the patent was issued on this day (November 18) in 1845 (below).
In relation to Thurber’s switch from a type-plunger machine in 1843 to a mechanical handwriting machine, I think Michael Adler summed up the situation best in his Antique Typewriters (same title as Rehr’s book, same year of publication, 1997). So I will take the liberty of using a scan of Adler’s words here (Please bear in mind Adler’s reference to Thurber inventing “two progressive typewriters” relates to a first "Patent Printer" with a flat platen and a second with a cylinder).
OK, having said all that, let’s look at Thurber’s life.
Charles Thurber was born in East Brookfield. Massachusetts, on January 2, 1803, the son of the Reverend Laban Thurber and his wife Abigail Thayer Thurber. Charles was the eldest of two children, and soon after a daughter, Sophie, was born, the Reverend Laban Thurber died (believed to be in Alabama, mysteriously), leaving Abigail Thurber to raise the two small children on her own.
Nonetheless she coped. Charles was able to attend local public schools before being sent to Milford Academy and prepared for college in Bellingham under a private tutor. Goodness knows how a widow managed it. At the age of 20, Charles entered Brown University, Rhode Island, and graduated in 1827 with bachelors and masters degrees and a Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch chain. He returned to Milford Academy as a preceptor (teacher) on $600-$800 a year, and served there for four years, until March 1832. He was then transferred to Worcester, Massachusetts, where for eight years until 1840 he was  principal of the Latin Grammar on Thomas Street.
Thurber's first wife, Lucinda Allen Thurber
In West Dedham on February 14, 1828, Thurber had married Lucinda Allen, the sister of Ethan Allen (born Bellingham, Massachusetts, September 2, 1806; died 1871). Nine years later Thurber and his brother-in-law Ethan Allen began a profitable business partnership in gun making. In 1840 Thurber based himself in Grafton, where the gun business operated on Waterville Street until 1842, before both he and the business moved to a larger labour market in Norwich, Connecticut, where they remained until July 1847. Finally Thurber (and the business) moved back to Union Street, Worcester.
He and Allen left behind a Norwich labour force trained in the finer aspects of gun making and numerous new firms soon took advantage of this valuable resource. These included Smith & Wesson, founded in 1852 by Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson – Wesson had been taught at school by Thurber and had worked for Allen and Thurber.
In 1840, Thurber had found he needed to devote so much time to this more significant money-making enterprise he had to give up Latin teaching in Worcester.
Ethan Allen
Ethan Allen had apprenticed in a Franklin machine shop and started a cutlery, commercial knife and shoemakers’ tool manufacturing factory in Milford in 1831. He established a gunsmith business in a mill on North Grafton's Quinsigamond River later that year, to make a cane gun invented by Dr Roger N. Lambert of Upton.
In 1836 he began making his own underhammer single shot pistol (the Allen “Pocket Rifle”) and on November 11, 1837, patented a percussion tube hammer pocket pistol which became known as the “Pepperbox Allen”. This made him sufficient profits for Allen to eventually be able to build a mansion on Murray Avenue, Worcester.
Charles Thurber always had the title “honourable” before his name and one family historian was unkind enough to say, “Probably Charles Thurber was the first gentleman of culture and polish to have allied with the Allen family to that date. Typically the average American of this era lacked these characteristics, instead, he was a hard-working man of boisterous language and humour. He was ruggedly independent, excited and delighted with both local and national politics, which, for the most part had previously been the exclusive business of the large landowners and statesmen.”
The (much later) imaged scene of Thurber demonstrating his Patent Printer
While involved with Allen in the firearms firm from 1837-1856, Thurber had many other things going on in his life.  Of course, on August 26, 1843, he patented his “Patent Printer” as an “Improvement in Machines for Printing”, and on November 18, 1845, his “Mechanical Chirographer” as an “Improvement in Writing-Machines”. In January and February 1846, Thurber used the “Mechanical Chirographer” to write letters to Sarah Wheelock and to his patent attorneys in Washington DC, in each discussing the machine.
The 1843 patent
Thurber also served as county commissioner from 1842-44 and was elected a member of the Massachusetts Senate for one session (1852-53). On May 15, 1851, he helped found the Worcester Gas Light Company. He became a member of the board of trustees of Brown University in 1853 and remained in that role until his death, in 1886. On top of all this, his wife, Lucinda, Ethan Allen’s sister, died in 1852, and on March 1, 1853, Thurber remarried in Nashua. His second wife was Caroline Estey Bennett, the widow of the Reverend Joseph Bennett.
In 1853, newly remarried, Thurber mourned Lucinda’s death by publishing a long poem in book form, A Heart-Offering to the Memory of The Loved and the Lost.
The firearms company was known as Allen and Thurber until Thurber retired from it in 1856. Another of Allen’s brother-in-laws, Thomas P.Wheelock (1803; died May 21, 1864), the brother of the Sarah Wheelock, of Shrewsbury (born September 3, 1820), to whom Thurber had written in 1846, had started working for the firm in Grafton.
Upon Thurber’s retirement from it, Wheelock became a full partner with Ethan Allen. The company became known as Allen and Wheelock until Wheelock’s death, when Allen's two sons-in-law, Sullivan Forehand and Henry C. Wadsworth, became associated with the firm.
Thurber's son Charles Thurber Jr
A turning point in Thurber’s life came on August 5, 1861, when his beloved son with Caroline, Charles Thurber Jr (“Our Charlie”), died aged five. In 1863 Thurber published a lengthy, sad poem about Our Charlie in book form, dedicated to his wife. It is doubtful he ever recovered from this setback.
While Charlie was a one-year-old, on June 23, 1857, Thurber returned to his attempts to perfect the “Mechanical Chirographer”, this time calling it the “Calligraph”, under the title of “Penmanship”. After Charlie’s death, his devastated father left Worcester and moved to Brooklyn, where Charles Sr lived with his widowed sister Sophie (married name Lazell) and his aged mother Abigail.  As heartbroken as he clearly was, Charles threw himself back into his work and made one last attempt to perfect his handwriting machine. On November 27, 1860, he patented the “Caligraph”.
Thurber later lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, spend six years travelling through Europe, and amassed a vast personal library, which he bequeathed to Brown University. He died of stomach cancer in Caroline’s hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire, on November 7, 1886, aged 83. Caroline appears to have survived him, as he was declared as “married” on his death certificate. His occupation was given as, simply, “Letters”.


Unknown said...

A letter written by Charles Thurber in 1844 appears to have been "typed" on his original machine, the Patent Printer, is in the archives at Perkins School for the Blind. An orginial machine is in the Worcester Historical Museum.

Unknown said...

Great blog! What is the source of the biographical info on Thurber? Is it Fay? I can't seem to locate that book. Worldcat doesn't list a location. Cheers and thanks! - Matthew Provost, Connecticut, USA

Unknown said...

Great piece, Thank you! What is the source of the biographical info on Thurber? Is it Fay? I can't seem to put my finger on that book, and Worldcat gives no location for it. Thoughts? Cheers, and thanks again.

Robert Messenger said...

Not Fay, Matthew, I don't think I've read it - other than what Darryl wrote about it. I have mostly used documents such as family trees, census returns, births, deaths and marriages certificates etc etc.

Ted said...

I should note that Thurber's "Chirograph" was eventually vindicated in time - it informs the design of pen plotter printers, and at least one actual typewriter: The Brother Type-O-Graph of 1984/85. (: