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Friday 31 July 2020

Early 19th Century British 'Writing Machines’ (I): The Blind Traveller, the Scientific Historian and their Wedgwood Noctographs

James Holman at his Noctograph
The first mention of a “writing machine” in British newspapers came in November-December 1823. It was in a report from Irkutsk in Siberia - just north of the Mongolian border - where in September that year the intrepid blind traveller James Holman was interviewed upon his arrival from England. “He writes an account of his journey in English according to information which he collects,” the report said. “In doing this, he makes use of a writing machine, invented in England, and used in several polytechnic schools.” (Attached clipping from the York Gazette, Saturday, November 29, 1823; the story was reproduced in many more newspapers in the following weeks.)
       The “machine” Holman used was described by him in A Voyage Round the World:
Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc, etc, from 1827 to 1832
, published in 1834. Holman wrote, “The invention of the apparatus to which I allude is invaluable to those who are afflicted with blindness. It opens not only an agreeable source of amusement and occupation in the hours of loneliness and retirement, but it affords a means of communicating our secret thoughts to a friend, without the interposition of a third party; so that the intercourse and confidence of private correspondence, excluded by a natural calamity, are thus preserved to us by an artificial substitute. By the aid of this process, too, we may desire our correspondent to reply to our inquiries in a way which would be quite unintelligible to those to whom the perusal of the answer might be submitted. This apparatus, which is called the ‘Nocto via Polygraph’, by Mr Wedgwood, the inventor, is not only useful to the blind, but is equally capable of being rendered available to all persons suffering under diseases of the eyes; for, although it does not assist you to commit your thoughts to paper with the same facility that is attained by the use of pen and ink, it enables you to write very clearly and legibly, while you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are spared all risk of hurting your sight. It is but an act of justice to refer such of my readers as may feel any curiosity on this subject, to Mr Wedgwood, for full particulars respecting his various inventions for the use of the blind.”
       The Noctograph had been originally patented by Ralph Wedgwood on October 7, 1806. Wedgwood (1766–1837) was a member of the famous Wedgwood family of potters, and funding for his inventions was provided by Josiah Wedgwood II, eldest son of Ralph’s cousin Josiah the senior. Ralph Wedgwood developed the earliest form of carbon paper, using lard and lampblack, as a way to duplicate documents with a “stylographic writer” or Noctograph (patents GB2972, “apparatus for producing duplicates of writings” and GB3110, “apparatus for producing several original writings ... at one and the same time”). It was through this that Wedgwood had contact with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1810-11, in regard to Wedgwood’s “grand scheme” to form a universal language and Wedgwood’s  invention of the “othiothograph”, a device for producing a “new character for language, numbers and music”, patented in July 1810. (I posted on this here on May 5, 2014).
James Holman was born in the City of Exeter, Devon, on October 15, 1786. He entered the British Royal Navy at age 13 as a first-class volunteer and was appointed a lieutenant in April 1807. In 1810, while off the coast of the Americas on the Guerriere - a frigate captured from the French Navy and recommissioned in 1806 - Holman was invalided by an illness that first afflicted his joints and then his vision. By the age of 25, he was totally and permanently blind. As well as that affliction, for the rest of his eventful life Holman suffered from debilitating pain and limited mobility. Since he was blinded while on active duty, in 1812 Holman was appointed to the Naval Knights of Windsor, with a lifetime grant of care in Windsor Castle. Bored by this incessantly devout existence, Holman took “sick leave” so he could study medicine and literature at the University of Edinburgh. In 1819 he set off on his first grand tour, journeying over the next two years through France, Italy, Switzerland, the parts of Germany bordering on the Rhine, Belgium and the Netherlands. On his return he published The Narrative of a Journey through France, etc., published in 1822. By 1832 Holman had become the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, and by October 1846 he had visited every inhabited continent.

The trip which took him to Siberia started in 1822. But in Irkutsk (above) he was suspected by Czar Alexander I of being a spy. Holman was forcibly conducted back to the frontiers of Poland and returned home through Austria, Saxony, Prussia and Hanover. He published Travels through Russia, Siberia, etc. in 1825. Finally, from 1827-32, he achieved his goal of circumnavigating the globe, and from 1834-35 published in four volumes in 1834-1835 A Voyage Round the World.  Holman’s last journeys were through Spain, Portugal, Moldavia, Montenegro, Syria and Turkey. He died in London on July 29, 1857, aged 70.
William Hickling Prescott at his Noctograph

Another blind writer who used the Noctograph was Salem-born historian and Hispanist William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859), widely recognised as the first American scientific historian. Prescott's eyesight degenerated after being hit in an open left eye with a hard crust of bread during a Commons Hall food fight in his junior year at Harvard in 1811. He first heard about the Noctograph from a friend, a Mrs Delafield, while staying with the oculist William Adams in London in the summer of 1816. On August 24 that year, Prescott wrote home from Paris using the ‘machine’ for the first time. “It is a very happy invention for me,” he said. His biographer, George Ticknor wrote in 1864 that, “And such it proved to be, for [Prescott] never ceased to use [the Noctograph] from that day; nor does it now seem possible that, without the facilities it afforded him, he ever would have ventured to undertake any of the works which had made his name what it is.” (Ticknor went to say Prescott’s first Noctograph still existed in 1864, and that Prescott had used two such machines until he died in 1859. Prescott also supplied Noctographs to others “suffering infirmities like his own”.)
Prescott specialised in late Renaissance Spain and the early Spanish Empire and the works which made him one of the most eminent historians of 19th century America included The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (1837), The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), A History of the Conquest of Peru (1847), all classics in the field, and the unfinished History of the Reign of Phillip II (1856–1858). Prescott died in Boston on January 29, 1859, aged 62. Here his biographer Ticknor describes the Noctograph:
TOMORROW: The Agograph,
the Chiragon, the Typograph
and Many More

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Life of a Typewriter Technician (Installment 6)

By Guest Poster Michael Klein

Continuing my story of a young wet-behind-the-ears school leaver, starting my career with a local office equipment supplier, which in many ways was like working for Arthur Daley of Minder fame.
There was a definite pecking order in the organisation, which consisted of only four people: the boss (also the salesman), the senior typewriter technician (senior in the sense that I was the newbie and much younger), a secretary and myself, who somehow landed all the errands and jobs that no-one else wanted to do!
One of my jobs was to do the “spare parts and stationery run”. In those days we (as well as most smaller typewriter shops of the time) also sold stationary. The stationary side of it was probably more trouble than it was worth, as it involved going to the stationary wholesalers (back then office supplies megastores weren't open to the general public, only to authorised re-sellers), picking up orders, then delivering items such as reams of paper, pens and paperclips to our customers. Can you imagine a business making any money in such a manner today? However, in those days there was a considerable mark-up to be made from on-selling stationery.
I remember one day, while on one such errand to one of my boss’s mates (and long-term customer), the invoice for a filing cabinet from the wholesaler that I’d just picked it up from somehow disastrously got left with the customer that I was delivering to. This was only discovered when I returned to the office. Needless to say, my boss was not happy with me for disclosing the wholesale price of items he had been supplying his golfing mate for many years.
The other part of the errand run was to pick up spare parts from Ames, or the typewriter suppliers such as Adler, Facit, Olympia, Olivetti, Remington and IBM, with some of the suppliers being more helpful than others. The Ames agency was probably the most helpful lot, while IBM probably the least helpful. It was reflective of the dominant spot they held in the marketplace and their business model was such where they didn’t have any re-sellers, so any smaller organisations such as ourselves fronting up to the mighty IBM to purchase parts were given a very hard time. And I certainly felt that an especially hard time was deliberately given to young lads like myself who were obviously green to the industry.
At IBM particularly, and to a lesser extent some of the other wholesalers, if you didn’t have the number of the part you were after, they feigned no knowledge of what you were talking about, even though the guy behind the counter clearly knew all the parts by name, description and part number backwards, as well as which drawer and bin the part was in. What made it even more difficult was that the parts catalogs were also highly restricted documents that the wholesalers were loath to give out. This wasn’t the case, however, if you were an authorised agency to the wholesaler. We had that relationship with Facit as we were Facit re-sellers.
With IBM, parts could only be picked up at a certain time of day, and they had to be pre-ordered over the phone. I remember that someone had once put a foam rubber disk the size of a coin against the parts counter window with a sigh that read “Press for Service” - a dummy button that when pressed didn’t ring a bell or in fact do anything. It was certainly somewhat poignant and indicative of the level of service one got from that organisation.
There was, however, an exception to the rule that I observed, and that was when getting parts from Remington, the chap behind the parts counter was the most helpful person one could ever meet. If, for instance, you asked, “I’m after a backspace pawl for an SJ Remington”, he’d then cheerfully fossick through all the drawers and hand you one without all the charade of needing a part number and having to come back in a week.
It was the kindliness and good nature of Tom, the man behind the spares counter at Remington, that left such an impression on a young lad’s mind that spurred me on to later approach the  company for a job (more on this in future installments, no doubt).

Monday 27 July 2020

Kurt Vonnegut Jr: Life Struggles on a Typewriter

Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1922- 2007) at his Olympia typewriter at his
in New York City on home on April 12, 1972.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s 2006 “Make Your Soul Grow” letter to Xavier High School, New York, English teacher Erin Lockwood has one again become online fodder for the masses, so starved of writing inspiration in these Covid-19 times.
Ms Lockwood had given her students the assignment of writing to their favourite author, asking him or her to visit the school. Five pupils chose Vonnegut. Vonnegut, then a self-described “old geezer” in "his sunset years" at age 84 - he died the following April - couldn’t make the trip, but wrote back the Ms Lockwood and her students (named by him as "Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta) anyway. At least he was the one author to reply.
Erin Lockwood.
It’s interesting to compare Vonnegut’s 2006 advice to high school pupils with an earlier letter, in which Vonnegut details his own early hard graft to become an author. This is outlined in a letter he wrote on an Olivetti Studio 44 typewriter from his home on Scudder Lane in West Barnstable, Cape Cod, Massachusetts in March 1964, five years before he became a world famous writer with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. Here is what Vonnegut wrote to Robert W. Mitchner, of the Indiana University Writers’ Conference:
Vonnegut’s brother Bernard.
Vonnegut at his Olivetti Studio 44 typewriter at his home on Scudder Lane in West Barnstable, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Golfball Typewriter Jewellery

As a fashion artist, my London daughter-in-law is as creative, imaginative and resourceful as anyone I know - apart, that is, from her mother, my wife. Emily uses her skills as a shoe and boot maker (her work is seen in many movies), clothes designer and seamstress and jewellery maker to come up with all sorts of beautiful creations. She can spot a discarded umbrella in a bin on a windy, wet day, and quickly turn it into a recyclable shopping bag. When Emily was back in Australia last year for our wedding, she spotted my collection of IMB Selectric golfballs gathering dust in the typewriter workshop and wondered aloud if they were ever going to be put to any use. I said no, take them. And this is the necklace she made from them. More of Emily's amazing work can be seen on Instagram.

Saturday 25 July 2020

Yucky Hermes Baby Typewriter Makeover

David Lawrence of Eden Typewriters in Auckland, New Zealand, is probably the only full-time, fully-qualified typewriter technician left in the Southern Hemisphere. David not only services and fixes typewriters, he also sells them. Not so long ago he had a visit from a young lady looking to buy a portable, and she spotted a 1963 Hermes Baby (serial number 6012422) going cheap, because somewhere along the way it had lost its ribbon spool cover. “No worries,” said the lady, “I have a 3D printer, I can make one.”

       The lady was so proud of her work she sent David photos of it. But neither of us were terribly impressed, for a range of reasons, not least of which is that the typewriter just looked awful. But lo and behold, David has now spotted the machine for sale on TradeMe, New Zealand’s equivalent of eBay.  Asking price: $500!!! This lady presumably thinks she's on to a good thing.

       The seller says, “A lot of hours have been put in restoring this good looking machine.” Which is not entirely true, since the machine was in excellent working condition when it left David’s workshop. “It’s been thoroughly cleaned inside and outside,” the seller continues. “No mouldy smell or dusts like most other pre-owned typewriters!”

But here is the clincher: “Custom designed top cover, platen knobs and feet to replace the existing parts that were in poor condition (photos of the original knobs indicate otherwise). "3D printed the parts with PLA plastic in olive green colour.” The colour, of course, being one of the main problems I have with it – yucky, to say the least.

The seller says, “Repainted with satin leafy green that matches the original green - feet and baseplate have been refurbished with new lining inside and anti-slip padding.”

But then comes the real punchline: “We can custom make typewriter parts as well. Please check out our website below for more details.” Caveat emptor, as they say in the classics. And it seems they are in New Zealand, for there have been no takers yet.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

War Correspondents Endorse Typewriters (and Some Other Things)

LIONEL JAMES (Blickensderfer)
Lionel James CBE DSO (1871-1955), described by Punch magazine as “One of the Princes of the Golden Age of War Correspondence”, is seen in Julius Edmond Robert Nitsche's Blinkensderfer portable typewriter poster stamp covering the Battle of Omdurman during Kitchener's campaign in the Sudan in 1898. James was the war correspondent for Reuters (1895-1899) and The Times of London (1899-1913). 
Lionel James organising his ground-breaking coverage
of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05.
Ellis Ashmead Bartlett (1881-1931) is seen using his Empire thrust-action portable typewriter on munitions crates at Gallipoli in 1915 in this World War I poster. Ashmead Bartlett's reporting of the Gallipoli campaign for the London Daily Telegraph was instrumental in the birth of the Anzac legend, which still dominates military history in Australia and New Zealand. It brought about the dismissal of the British commander-in-chief, Sir Ian Hamilton (a close personal friend of Lionel James). Like James, Ashmead Bartlett also covered the  Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. After Gallipoli he reported on the fighting on the Western Front in France.
Ellis Ashmead Bartlett
ERNIE PYLE (Underwood)
Ernest Taylor Pyle (1900-1945) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and war correspondent who is best known for his stories about ordinary American soldiers during World War II. Pyle is also notable for the columns he wrote as a roving human-interest reporter from 1935 to 1941 for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate. Using an Underwood Noiseless portable typewriter, Pyle covered the European theatre (1942-44) and Pacific theatre (1945). He was killed by Japanese fire on Ie Shima during the Battle of Okinawa. 
Ernie Pyle
Lewis Ransome Freeman (1878-1960), an American explorer and journalist, used and wrote endorsements for Corona 3 and four-bank portable typewriters. He also served as a war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. During World War I he was a correspondent with the British, French and Italian armies from 1915 to 1917. He was a correspondent attached to the Grand Fleet late in the war, and was a staff member for the Inter-Allied Naval Armistice Commission which traveled to Germany in 1918. In 1925 he was a special correspondent with the US Navy Pacific Fleet on its cruise to Australasia. Below are Corona advertisements for which Freeman wrote the copy.
Lewis R. Freeman in the Colorado River, Arizona, 1923.
Marguerite Higgins (1920-1966) mostly used a Hermes Baby portable typewriter (but sometimes an Erika portable and Underwood portable and standard) in her many travels as a war correspondent. She covered World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and in the process advanced the cause of equal access for female war correspondents. Higgins worked for New York Herald Tribune (1942-1963) and as a syndicated columnist for Newsday (1963–1965). She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Correspondence, awarded in 1951 for her coverage of the Korean War. Higgins covered the Nuremberg war trials and the Soviet Union's blockade of Berlin and later headed the Tribune's Moscow bureau.
Marguerite Higgins
"Count Jacques Alexis Albert Uhlenbroek Dudley von Maurik de Beaufort of the Duchy of Luxembourg" (1882-1967). After causing much trouble in Scotland in 1908 and Chicago in 1910, "Count de Beaufort" was in Europe during World War I, and did file stories to American newspapers (claiming to represent the London Daily Telegraph and the International News Service) - from Germany! However, according to a letter from his "mother", he was killed by German fire while "fighting for France" at Nieuwpoort in Flanders, Belgium, in March 1915. And yet the very next month he was filing copy from Berlin. And a year later he was apparently arrested for speeding in London. In 1916, a year before the US entered the war, he published a book called Behind The German Veil: A Record of a Journalistic War Pilgrimage. Then in 1917 he eloped with the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy Terre Haute, Indiana, merchant, for possibly his third marriage. "Count" Jack (or Mick or James) de Beaufort was, in fact, Jaques Albert Uhlenbroek, born on April 13, 1882 in Nijmegen, a city in The Netherlands' province of Gelderland, on the Waal river close to the German border. Uhlenbroek arrived in the US from Britain in 1909, already well on the way to becoming one of the great impostors, con men and swindlers of his time, an arch liar and fraudster who variously claimed to be Dutch, Belgian, French and a Luxembourger, He had married heiress Irma Elinor Kilgallen, the daughter of Chicago steel magnate Martin H. Kilgallen, in London earlier in 1909, thinking this would put him on easy street in the US. It didn't. The marriage soon collapsed, but the "Count" managed to keep his pet bulldog Bob, went into vaudeville and the movies, then newspaper work as "The Dude Reporter". (The recently remarried Irma, the ex-"Countess de Beaufort", shot herself to death in a room in the Hotel Fountenelle in Omaha, Nebraska, in April 1916.) Uhlenbroek’s scam was finally exposed in San Francisco in October 1924 when he was jailed for wearing a US Army captain's hat, a Belgian officer's jacket, white riding breeches, boots with spurs and numerous medals and ribbons, all apparently fake. Uhlenbroek, who "gave up his title" to become a US citizen (as "Jack De Beaufort") in June 1917, died in Los Angeles on October 15, 1967, aged 85.
The cheating "Count" de Beaufort with Bob.