Rasmus Malling Hansen (1835 – 1890)
The other day I had cause to write something with a pen. It was an odd feeling and the result was something that an inebriated arachnid would feel proud of. So embedded in our daily life is the keyboard in all its forms that many fear for the future of cursive script. But the typewriter, which is the granddaddy of the myriad keyboards which we use, was a relatively modern innovation.
And who could claim to be its inventor? Step forward, Rasmus Malling Hansen, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.
The Danish priest was principal of the Royal Institute of Deaf-mutes in Copenhagen. His work piqued an interest in the make-up of Danish letters and sounds and, in particular, the speed at which letters could be spoken and written per second. He concluded, according to his patent application, that “in a given time one can say five times as many sounds as they can be written.”
This observation led Rasmus to consider how he could speed up the production of letters on paper. From around 1865 he started experimenting and by 1870 was sufficiently satisfied with the results to apply for and receive a patent for what he described as an “apparatus for quick writing.” He claimed that “The writing speed will easily be two to three times as fast as normal, and practice in using the apparatus should be able to bring this speed up to speech speed.”
It was an ingenious affair. The heart of the contraption was a large brass hemisphere in which 52 keys were arranged such that the keys representing the most frequently used letters were directly in reach of the user’s strongest and fastest writing fingers. The vowels were arranged on the left hand side and the consonants on the right and this arrangement, together with the use of short pistons which went through the hemisphere enabled the user, after some practice, reach prodigious speeds. To the eye it looked like an over-sized pin cushion.
The paper was attached to a cylinder which could move both vertically and horizontally. Using an electro-magnet powered by a 10 or 12-cell battery, a mechanical escapement moved the carriage the required distance each time a key was depressed. As well as the forerunner of the typewriter per se, Rasmus’ machine could be claimed to be the first electric typewriter.
The machine caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the large industrial exhibition in Copenhagen in 1872, winning Rasmus first prize. It was also well received at the world exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and in Paris in 1878. But Rasmus was not satisfied and soon replaced the cylinder with a flat carriage to which the paper was attached and in 1875 he was able to dispense with the battery, having found a mechanical solution to the problem of moving the paper. The philosopher, Nietzsche, bought one but never got on with it.
Leaving the philosopher’s lack of manual dexterity to one side, the principal problem was that the machine, undoubtedly efficient as it was, was fiendishly expensive, making it difficult to attract a manufacturer to produce it in sufficient quantities to make a dent in the market. This opened the way for a rival typewriter, less efficient but cheaper and better marketed, the Remington typewriter which was first produced commercially on 1st March 1873 in Ilion, New York. And the rest is history.
Rasmus could never interest manufacturers in his machine and when he died, his machine died with him. Very few survive but if you have one, they are worth a lot of money.
In 1872 Rasmus also invented a high-speed machine for stenography, the Takyagraf, and was the first to exploit the potentials of carbon paper, developing a technique called Xerografi. But for inventing the typewriter and failing to exploit it commercially, Rasmus is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone