Australia Day, marking the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet (of European settlers) at Sydney Cove in 1788, was celebrated three weeks ago. But next Monday another important national milestone should be observed – Australia Typewriter Day.
The first shipment of typewriters arrived in Australia on February 18, 1876, 137 years ago on Monday.
Australia’s first Sholes & Glidden had been brought into the country directly from the US seven months earlier, in July 1875, by Adelaide merchant George Witherage Cotton.
On September 6 that year, Cotton exhibited the typewriter to an impressed audience at his offices in the Queen’s Chambers, 19 Pirie Street, adjacent to the Adelaide Town Hall.
Pirie Street in Adelaide, showing the Queen's Chambers, in 1880
News of the “successful trial” of Cotton’s Sholes & Glidden was immediately wired across Australia, and appeared in all the nation’s newspapers under the heading “Telegrams – From our own Correspondents, Adelaide, September 7”.
Border Watch, Mount Gambier, September 8, 1875
Queanbeyan Age, September 11, 1875
Bendigo Advertiser, September 8, 1875
It appeared alongside such important matters as a pre-global warming fall in the level of the River Murray at Bourke, a bid to raise the stamp duty on sheep, a summer increase to 8d on a quart of milk (by “cow-keepers”) and sales of the “likeness” of Mary Julia Buchan, the 20-year-old maid murdered in Mount Gambier in July 1875.
Mary Julia Buchan
From this humdrum and maudlin stuff, the trial of the typewriter shone out.
“Give Mr Cotton, the importer, a testimonial and a purse of sovereigns and invest in one,” declared the South Australian Register a week after the trial, and following three consecutive days of advertising by Cotton in the newspaper. Cotton wrote that, “having imported one of these machines” he could declare “The American Type-Writer” was “so useful to Bankers, Merchants, Reporting and every Office where Legibility, Accuracy and Dispatch are of importance”. Cotton called for orders for the “Outgoing Mail”. Four were received.
Buoyed by the huge amount of interest shown in this new-fangled printing machine, Cotton had secured from George Washington Newton Yōst the rights to be the first official Australian agent for The Type Writer Company. The four Sholes & Gliddens ordered from Cotton came from New York through London and arrived on the City of Berlin on February 18, 1876.
City of Berlin on high seas outside New York, 1879
One of the Sholes & Gliddens imported by Cotton was seen in Adelaide by a young visiting Englishman, William James Richardson, a happy occurrence which led directly to Queen Victoria being introduced to the typewriter, adopting it for the use of British royalty, and to the boom in the British typewriter industry. The full story of this remarkable chain of events is told in the next edition of ETCetera, due out next month.
Amid confusion caused by US-generated publicity in Australian newspapers for the Charles Ames Washburn machine, on May 29, 1876, the South Australian Register found itself having to apologise to Cotton and declare him the first to import the typewriter into Australia. The Register said it had carefully examined Cotton’s typewriter and found it to be same machine as that exhibited at the Royal Society of Arts in London in January 1876. “Mr Cotton is therefore entitled to the credit of having introduced it here some six months sooner than it was brought to England.”
“This machine will not doubt become fashionable,” wrote “Geoffry Crabthorn” in his column in the Register. “The novels will be full of it.” “Crabthorn” was John Howard Clark (1830-1878), newspaper proprietor and editor of the Register from 1870-78.
John Howard Clark ("Geoffry Crabthorn")
Before Cotton’s shipment of four machines had arrived, however, a Polish-born Sydney merchant, Sigmond Hoffnung (1830-1904), had brought more Sholes & Gliddens into Australia.
brought the first typewriter to Sydney, in November 1875
Hoffnung exhibited his typewriter in Sydney on December 11, 1875, then had his Queensland branch enter it in the Intercolonial Exhibition in Brisbane from July-September 1876.
The School of Arts in Brisbane, as it was when the typewriter
was exhibited in May 1876
On show at the School of Arts, it was highly commended in the Apparatus and Printing Application of Liberal Arts section of the exhibition, taking the top award.
Sydney Morning Herald, December 11, 1875
Born in Kalisz, and educated in Liverpool, England, Hoffnung arrived in Sydney in early 1852 and opened a wholesale business in Wynyard Square, moving in 1855 to larger premises in George Street. In 1870 Hoffnung moved into new premises designed by Thomas Rowe in Pitt Street and in 1871 opened a Brisbane branch. The firm also established other branches in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji and had its head office in London. Hoffnung set up the first opal-cutting business in Australia and exported uncut diamonds and sapphires for industrial use.
Hoffnung & Co on Pitt Street, Sydney,
where the typewriter was exhibited in December 1875
where the typewriter was exhibited in December 1875
From The House of Hoffnung, 1852-1952
There had certainly been a lot of advance publicity for the typewriter in Australia, starting with a story in the Melbourne Express in November 1872, and an excited report on the Christopher Latham Sholes invention from John Henniker Heaton in the Australian Town and Country Journal on December 21, 1872. As well, one newspaper reported a “tachytypagraph” being developed by English inventor John Storey Davies.
Heaton, by Leslie Ward ("Spy" in Vanity Fair)
In June 1875, one newspaper said the cost of a Sholes & Glidden was $US125, the equivalent in gold or £25 sterling, and yet “We are likely to have them as plentiful as sewing machines shortly”.
Writing about the typewriter, another Australian newspaper commented, “Nothing shows, perhaps, the goaheadism of the American more than the improvements and inventions in machinery for economising labor and increasing the power of production”.
J.H.Clark's column in the Register, 1875
In May 1876 a company called M’Rickard Brothers, based at 473 George and Bathurst Streets, Sydney, was advertising the “Remington Type Writer”, along with other Remington goods, such as firearms.
Cotton exhibited the Sholes & Glidden again in Adelaide in September 1876. This time printer and publisher David Gall (1824-1887), editor of Adelaide journal The Comet and a founder of the South Australian Chamber of Manufacturers, demonstrated the typing capabilities of the machine. It was quite feasible, said Gall, that “every man might become his own printer”.
George Witherage Cotton is remembered today as a Member of the Legislative Council in South Australia and as a champion of the scheme to put working men on to small blocks (around 20 acres) on which they could carry out agricultural production.
Cotton was born on February 4, 1821, at Staplehurst in Kent, England. He migrated with his parents to South Australia in 1848. Cotton worked as a carpenter at Willunga and storekeeper on Hindmarsh Island before becoming a successful land agent in Adelaide.
In 1879 Cotton retired from business and was elected to office in the Legislative Council (Upper House) elections of 1882. In the depression years following he took an interest in the unemployed and in land reform. Cotton developed a working men's blocks scheme in which the government would offer blocks of up to 20 acres of crown land at low rents. Income from such blocks would eventually be adequate to support a family, forming the basis of a new society of independent producers and co-operative associations. In 1885 the South Australian government began to implement Cotton's plan. In 1896 about 12,900 people, or nearly 4 per cent of the population, lived on these blocks. Cotton also championed the state bank, technical education, a strong government department of labour and boards of conciliation and arbitration.
He died in Adelaide on December 15, 1892, aged 71. His obituary in the Register said, “Anything which tended to benefit the working classes received [his] most serious attention ... There has been no man who has been more straight forward and endeavoured to do good in the community ... The good acts of some men are far above their failings and [his] little faults could well be overlooked ... The working men's block system [has] been a moral lesson to all the world ... The tide of wealth had been heaped against him, but he had never shrunk from his duties.”
And these, of course, included introducing Australia to the typewriter. On Monday, we must salute George Witherage Cotton.