GrandPapa's Letter
Franklin B. Van Valkenburgh

The Birth of the Type Writer

It would amaze some of our younger members to know how many "absolutely indispensible things" of the present day, we were compelled to live without forty years ago, and I imagine we older ones would growl not a little if compelled to do all we then did, without a thought of a better way or of hardship.

We used to work night after night, until ten o'clock or later, making written copies of our papers, by the flickering and uncertain light of tallow candles, as there was no gas in any of the Law Offices. There were neither Water Works or Sewers in the city, and of course our homes and offices lacked all the comforts and conveniencies which came in their lead. I have often sat at my window on Wisconsin Street, and seen the horses (rows of which were hitched to the posts on either side of that street most every day in the summer time,) struggling to keep on their feet, while the water rushed down the gutters in torrents reaching half way to their knees, and the street crossings were entirely covered and out of sight;

On one such occasion I saw an immense Conductor on the Bradley & Metcalf building just across the street, torn from the roof and thrown to the ground by the rush of water, and then the place was impassible for a while, and at least one venturesome woman was cast down and deluged by the rush of water from the roof; On another occasion we saw Caleb Wall's coachman knocked from a horse he was riding, at the corner of Main and Wisconsin streets, and killed by a stroke of lightning. There were of course no Letter Carriers in those days, and it was great fun to go to the Post Office; Mr. Waldo used to say that if the day was fine, and the girls out on the streets, I made a dozen trips to the P.O. to mall half a dozen letters, But of course that was only chaff.

We were in great luck when the use of copying ink, made It possible to duplicate our papers with a Letter Press, and until the Legislature passed an act prohibiting the use of letter press copies, many of the papers used in court and elsewhere by the lawyers were printed on tissue paper, from the written pages, by means of the letter press; Then came the Hektograph with which an unlimited number of copies could be made, and after that the Type Writer, at the birth of which I assisted.

The TYPE WRITER was in fact invented by CARLOS GLIDDEN, at the time a student in our office, and afterwards a practicing Lawyer in our city and I saw the first one ever made, as well as the first attempts at making it; Glidden often told me that it was seeing his future partner, C. Latham Sholes, paging a book, that suggested the idea of a machine, all of the types of which should strike in one place, and of moving the paper to meet the type;

The first machine (which I often saw,) was as crude a bit of mechanism as any school boy ever created with his jack knife and a bit of string and wood, but the Idea was there. This was a small square concern, with roughly whittled wooden levers and wrapping twine attachments, made in the first instance with a view to moving the type back and forth to meet the paper, but he immediately hit upon the idea of a central point, where all the type should strike, and then the Type Writer was an assured thing. After that, with the aid of Kleinstueber and Densmore the firm of Sholes & Glidden perfected a machine which did the desired work after a fashion, and then they interested the Remingtons in the work, and it became a world known success and necessity.

In their most hopeful moments I have heard Sholes and Glidden assert (almost under their breaths,) that if their machine worked as they hoped, any one who lived for twenty years would see at least one if not more of the Type Writers in every city in the Union. Like a majority of inventors, these two men made immense fortunes for others, but themselves profited but little in a pecuniary way by reason of the invention. Today it is difficult to see how the world could get along without the machine. Then telegraphy was a new & hardly appreciated and but little used luxury, and the Telephone was in the womb of the future.

Short Hand Writers, as Stenographers were universally called; were scarcer than hens teeth, and the busy lawyer must take down in long hand all the witnesses said, and the Judge who tried cases must preserve all that was needed for the Bill of Exceptions, in his own hand writing, all of which involved an immense amount of labor, and writers cramp was a well known disease among the fraternity. There were no Dining or Sleeping Cars on the Rail Roads, and the little locomotives and cars, all heated with wood, and which were the boast of the country, would appear ridiculous to the modern traveller.

The first business trip I made from Milwaukee was to Postville in Minnesota, and instead of going to bed with Mr. Pullman, in our station, and waking up in Minnesota to fee his porter, and taking my well cooked and served breakfast in one of his palatial Dining Cars, before landing on the following day at my destination, as I might now do;

I went by rail via Chicago to Dubuque, and thence by steamer to Reeds Landing, on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, and thence in a birch bark canoe, with one of "the noble red men of the forest, " to supply the motive power, across Lake Pepin, to a small hamlet in Minnesota, where I chartered a buck board and team, and drove through some of the loveliest country imaginable, to my destination; How near I came to missing my game that trip, nobody but myself and that Indian will ever know, but he had "steamed up" pretty well before starting, and about midway of the lake concluded that he required a rest, and his noonday nap, and despite my most earnest and heartfelt prayers and protestations, insisted upon wrapping the drapery of his couch around his manly form, and lying down to pleasant dreams, and from this nothing short of the promise of another dollar, and unlimited supplies of his own worst enemy, could arouse him.

We finally arrived in drenched clothes, and safety at the village, and upon my return a few days later I had the satisfaction of learning the "Chief One Eye, " had spent his illgotten funds before sobering up, and finally came to such senses as he was possessed of, in a small log cabin, familiarly known as "The Cooler. "

back          contents           next