By Robert Messenger
On June 23 a bunch of people who, like me, have nothing better to do with their time and money than to spend it on old typewriters, will be celebrating World Typewriter Day.
June 23 marks the anniversary of the day on which Christopher Latham Sholes was issued a patent for the first step toward the first practical typewriter. This machine went into production at E.Remington and Sons’ rifle and sewing machine factory at Ilion in New York in September 1873, and was inflicted upon an unsuspecting public in March 1874. So unsuspecting was the public that not one member of it – including Sholes himself - had the foggiest clue what it would be used for.
Mark Twain was one of the first people to fall for a sales pitch (and what a pitch it was!). But he soon wanted to swap his typewriter with William Dean Howells for a horse whip. He eventually traded the machine with Frank Bliss for a $12 saddle, worth one 10th of what he paid for it.
The idea for World Typewriter Day came not, obviously, from Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but from another (living, but lesser) American writer called Clemens, Mike Clemens of California.
A few years ago this Clemens led a loose-knit group of bloggers into what is called the typosphere. A typospherian is someone who “typecasts” – that is, they type their posts, usually on an aging manual portable, scan them, then download images of the typewritten material on to their blogs.
Typospherians are usually, away from their clanking keyboards, reasonably normal people. They include professors of philosophy and cultural archaeology, respectable school masters and even a newspaper columnist. But Clemens defines them as people who “collect, use, and otherwise obsess over typewriters and other ‘obsolete’ technologies, including, but not limited to, handwriting, pens and ink, paper mail and … knitting, chip-less combustion engines and related ephemera. Though typically reclusive, members of the typosphere can sometimes be found lurking around the fringes of rummage sales, swap meets, flea markets, and church fundraisers, hoping to find the one make, model, or colour typewriter that will finally complete their collection and bring them true happiness and satisfaction. None have managed this feat yet.”
Clemens said there was a fear “otherwise productive members of society would be indoctrinated into the strange, cloistered world of the typewriter obsessive.”
These oddballs hold “type-ons” at which they “challenge one another in speed-typing contests, envy one another's typewriters and exchange their surplus machines in their futile quest for completion”.
After one of these “type-ins”, in Delaware, Mike Brown of Philadelphia emailed me to say it had been “just like a religious experience, or group sex. I'm not sure.” Georg Sommeregger, in Basle (the Swiss are into this sort of thing, too) told me, “I think it definitely is a sort of church.”
Given the overwhelming majority of people are far too sane to get involved in such activities, I’ve seldom had the opportunity to attend a type-in. But to mark the first World Typewriter Day, those taking part videoed typing on their favourite machines, and the videos were collated on YouTube. One of those who put his hand up for the typing extravaganza was Giordana of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra (I swear, such a thing exists. One of its numbers is the QWERTY Waltz!).
I didn’t for one moment expect it to be a religious experience. Nonetheless, it is true that spiritualists once believed typewriters could be used to communicate with the dead.
One of the great typewriter inventors in history was George Washington Newton Yost, who had introduced Sholes’ machine to Remington, then created its first rival, the Caligraph. He went on to build an even more famous machine in his own name.
In 1895, the “spirit” of Yost is said to have used a Yost typewriter to write down the thoughts from the grave of American spiritualist Helene Petrova Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy.
Madame Blavatsky’s “text” (described as “furnishing strong, internal proofs of its apocryphal character”) was “obtained in independent typewriting on a Yost machine under the supervision of the spirit of its inventor …” This resulted in Posthumous Memoirs … Dictated from the Spirit-World under the Supervision of G.W.N.Yost, published by Joseph Marshall Wade, of Boston, in 1896.
When Yost died, an obituary said, “Although a shrewd man of business, Mr Yost had a tendency in his nature which led him into abstract speculation and made of him a devoted Spiritualist. With a Chicago Spiritualist named Dr [Henry D.] Rogers, he formed a great friendship, believing that the doctor was able to communicate with the spirits of the dead and to record these conversations and interviews upon the typewriter. In spite of the conviction of his friends that Dr Rogers imposed upon him, Mr Yost maintained his intimacy with Dr Rogers …”
Rogers apparently had some sort of fixation with typewriters and typewriter inventors. After Yost died, the swindler married Harriet E. Beach, the extremely wealthy widow of another great typewriter inventor, Alfred Ely Beach.
Mrs Beach, 67, had been a widow just 55 weeks. But she said she had been guided in her hasty decision by her dead husband, her dead parents and some dead other folk – presumably via a Beach typewriter! There’s one born every minute.