Check it out: a brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece I did just went up: this time about old typewriters - especially the marvelous Malling-Hansen Writing Ball.
Horse and buggies, hoop skirts, steam engines, bustles ... oh, yes, life around the turn of the previous century was a delight of simplicity and workmanship. But that doesn't mean that the artisans and engineers of way-back-when didn’t at least have their hearts and minds in the right place.
Take, for example, what writing used to be like before a few very bright bulbs thought to create machines to make it easier: pens that constantly ran dry, ink that spilled or smeared, illegible handwriting ... getting the message across -- any message across -- by hand was problematic at best, totally confusing at worst.
One of the earliest of those bright bulbs was William Austin Burt who, in 1829, created what he called a 'typewritor.' If Burt's machine was the first is a matter of much debate as another, similar, machine had also built by Pellegrino Turri around the same time. Some even say the crown of 'first' should go to Henry Mill, who created a writing machine way back in 1714.
But all of these devices were just baby steps: more potential than actually being helpful to people whose job it was to be clear, concise and fast with their writing. There were a lot of others after them these early pioneers, but none of them were ever a real commercial success. Looking at them you can see why: in many of these very early models – called 'index typewriters,' by the way – the typing was done by selecting the letter to be used on a slider and then pressing it against the paper. To call these early monsters 'slow' is being kind. Changing the alphabetical slider to a disc version helped a bit but not enough to make any of these machines easy or popular.
In 1865, what many consider to be the true ancestor to the first true, efficient, and financially successful was developed by Rasmus Malling-Hansen: The Writing Ball. What's fascinating about Hansen's creation isn't just its efficiency but also it's strangely elegant beauty. Just look at it: a brass half-sphere covered with keys above a cylinder that held the paper. It was finely made, unlike some of the unsuccessful machines before it, looking more like a gentleman's watch than a piece of office equipment.
Sure, Hansen's Ball has some rather serious flaws – like the fact that it was hardly cheap and, because of the position of the ball and the paper under it, the typist really couldn't see what they were typing until they were done and the paper was removed from the machine -- but that didn't stop it from selling better than many other previous models. One quirk of the ball was that, unlike the QWERTY keyboard that pretty much every typewriter after it and every computer after those typewriters became extinct had, the ball's keys had been positioned to make typing easier for the typist and not the typewriter. By the way, in case you don't know the sad, strange story of QWERTY – which haunts us to this day -- the alphabet were originally put in that order because otherwise users would type faster than the machine could handle, thus jamming the keys. So QWERTY was created to keep that from happening: to keep the machine happy at the cost of typist efficiency.
Here's a fun bit of trivia for you folks now interested in Malling-Hansen's elegant writing ball: one particular person was interested in this new, wondrous invention – a celebrated writer who was having a hard time with his diminishing eyesight. While Nietzsche did get and use his writing ball he sadly didn't love it – though it is fascinating to visualize the author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra clicking and clacking on the mechanical beauty of one of Hansen's creations.
Eventually, though, other – and cheaper – machines were developed, saving generations of writers, secretaries, business people, and anyone else who used to have to put pen to paper, from cramp and bad handwriting. Though Hansen and his elegant ball have been almost lost to time it's nice to be able to show a new, QWERTY-slaved generation, the beauty of his creation.