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Penmanship versus the typewriter

Published September 15. 2012 09:02AM

By jim zbick

A century ago, the typewriter was changing the way we communicated as dramatically as personal computers and iPhones have revolutionized today's communication.

The way in which the typewriter was making inroads in replacing penmanship alarmed some purists. One Tamaqua Courier writer was concerned about how the typewriter was impacting schools as well as the business world.

"A few years ago, any seeker for a job had to make his application in his own handwriting," the writer said. "The employer who had to use a magnifying glass plus a capacity for detective work to decipher a letter, was not much impressed by flowery testimonials from friends.

"Now when you ask for a position you likely use a machine that covers up the deficiencies of your handwriting. You perhaps think that penmanship is a lost art, useful to bookkeepers, but not essential for businessmen.

"Nevertheless, if you should make a census of the number of typewriter machines in this town, you probably would not find more than one to a hundred of population. The rest of us must still use the implements nature gave us, plus the best pen and ink of our daddies."

The writer told how the handwritten letter can tell a lot about the person.

"Few things give a greater impression of literacy than a scrawly letter," he said. "More than that, it suggests a certain lack of muscular self-control. On receiving such a communication, you form a mental picture of a person who bumps up against people on the street, awkward and blundering."

Unfortunately, he sensed that penmanship was being de-emphasized both in society and in our schools. He did take a humorous swipe, however, at the physicians of his day who were known to scrawl out indecipherable prescriptions.

"When doctors of philosophy and bachelors of science send out letters scarcely distinguishable from bird tracks, it may not be considered important that children to learn to write," he joked.

"A symmetrical handwriting is not necessary. Even if it is rough, if the letters are clearly formed so that it can be read at sight, it serves the purpose for which it was intended," he said. "So teacher, don't think the copy book is rendered obsolete by the typewriter! It never will be!"

Unfortunately, time has proven that the writer wasn't a prophet. Within 75 years, teachers would not only see transition from the handwritten copy book to the typewriter but from typewriter to the computer.

Early typewriter

After reading an article on writing machines in the Scientific American in 1867, Christopher Sholes, a mechanical engineer in Wisconsin, was inspired to invent a typewriter machine. A native of Moorseburg, Pa. in Montour County, Sholes' first typewriter was a cumbersome, unreliable machine that would frequently jam.

The earliest models were actually slower to operate than handwriting a letter. In 1868, however, Sholes and Carlos Glidden came out with an updated version that was capable of printing faster than the pen.

The first "Sholes & Glidden Typewriter" was offered for sale in 1874, but only only 5,000 machines were sold. Sholes did not have the patience needed to market his product so he sold off the rights to James Densmore. But Densmore lacked the adequate funds to manufacture the machines and sold the rights to Phil Remington, a New York based rifle manufacturer.

The Remington No. 1 was the first typewriter machine to attain commercial success, offering speed as well as improved printing quality. Remington predicted the machine would "free the world from pen slavery and complete the economic emancipation of womankind."

The first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher was none other than Mark Twain, who had purchased his Remington for $125. There is a discrepancy over whether that first typed book was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or his earlier Life on the Mississippi.

At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, two inventions that would revolutionize the way we communicated were on public display together for the first time.

First, Alexander Graham Bell's voice-transmission invention, which was the early telephone, was a popular hit with many fairgoers.

Receiving much less attention was the typewriter. Despite the less-than-auspicious public acceptance, typewriters improved nearly every year in both speed and efficiency.

One of the most remarkable typing feats of the 20th century took place in 1923 during a business show in New York. Albert Tangora ran off a total of 8,840 correctly spelled words in one hour of nonstop typing, a rate of 147 words per minute.

Incredibly, he achieved his record on a crude and cumbersome old manual typewriter. The judges estimated that Tangora executed an average of twelve-and-a-half strokes per second!

By the time of the American Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, the typewriter was well integrated into American society as an important business tool. But looming on the horizon was the personal computer, which would soon once again transform the way Americans communicated.

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