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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


Richard P said...

Very interesting. Holman sounds like an amazingly intrepid individual.

Johnpyyc said...

Robert - what an amazing story.