Today is the 150th birthday of the typewriter in America, the machine that made possible this Age of Paperwork.
Where would we all be without it? Can you imagine the number of quills we would have used by this time?
There is a theory that true t-ought is not possible without language. For some of us, thought is not possible unless our fingers are dancing on those keys.
For some of us the typewriter gets to be like the cowpoke's horse: Just let go the reins and it'll take you home.
It began with the Erie Canal. A New Yorker named William Austin Burt drifted west on the canal, winding up in Michigan, where he was elected to the territorial legislature. Expecting a rough-and-ready frontier, he was appalled to find that paperwork had followed him even into the forests.
So he invented what he called a "typographer," with the type ranged on a rotating semicircular frame which a lever pressed against the paper. It was just like the toy typewriter you had when you were a kid.
He got his patent July 23, 1829.
(This was by no means the first typewriter. One Henry Mill, an English engineer, got a patent from Queene Anne in 1714 for "an Artificial Machine or Method for the impressing or Transcribing of Letters Singly or Progressively one after another, as in Writing, where by all Writing whatever may be Engrossed in Paper or Parchment so Neat and Exact as not to be distinguished from Print.")
Burt's original model burned in the Patent Office fire of 1836, but his grandson built a replica, on view today at the Smithsonian.
As for electrics, it was the unrelenting Thomas Edison who developed the principle in 1872. James Smathers pioneered a working model in 1920.
For many of us, confronting our first electric typewriter was rather like the first time we ate oysters. Would we pass the test? Would we disgrace ourselves?
There was a quiet menace in the thing, sitting there humming at you. There was something too eager about it, aching to create, frantic to produce no matter what. Sometimes it lost patience and went ahead and wrote stuff all by itself. (Mine never had much to say - mostly semicolons.)
But we adapt. The humming has come to sound quite pleasant. It is almost like some cool little creature, vibrating delicately with electric life, wishing only to please, yearning to perform any silliness you may require, from a manifesto to a requisition order, or simply the sheer physical delight of pressing the repeat key.
Come on, Selectric II, let's go home. CAPTION: Picture, no caption