Story Stream
recent articles

On this date in American history, Ulysses S. Grant died at age 63, Detroit was consumed by a 1967 race riot that would claim 43 lives, and in 1829 the U.S. Patent Office accepted the design for a device that was the precursor to the typewriter. Oh, and this very evening the 2020 baseball season finally gets underway. All worthy subjects for an essay -- Grant and Detroit are especially timely topics -- but without the advent of the typewriter, I might not even be sending out this daily treatise. So I'll write about that.

* * *

The invention that changed writing forever was the brainchild of a Michigan jack-of-all trades named William Austin Burt. Born in Massachusetts in 1792, Burt moved to New York where he served as a postmaster, school inspector, and justice of the peace, and thence to Michigan where he was a state legislator, circuit judge, millwright, and surveyor.

It was a time when Americans were discovering laws of nature and applying their newfound knowledge to the invention of gizmos galore, especially if they were exploring the frontier. William Burt was a case in point. Surveying in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he noticed his magnetic compasses gyrating madly. Deducing the cause, he searched for ferrous rocks -- thereby discovering the region's vast deposits of iron ore.

Needing a reliable device for determining his direction, Burt also concocted the solar compass, which he patented. Later, in his Macomb County shop, he invented the equatorial sextant. The machine that was to change written communication in this country was developed by Burt in 1829.

The concept had been percolating in the minds of creative people for a while. In 1714, English tinkerer Henry Mill sought to patent "an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another." Mill didn't really have such a machine, and you can't patent an idea, so it remained unbuilt. An Italian named Pellegrino Turri apparently constructed one in the early 1800s. But he wasn't interested in mass publishing; he was merely trying to help a blind friend, so it didn't catch on then. William Burt wasn't primarily interested in printing, either. He built his "typographer" in the backwoods of Michigan simply out of a desire to facilitate his communications with the government surveying office.

Burt had a friend, a Detroit newspaperman, who saw the future, however. His name was John P. Sheldon and on May 25, 1829, Sheldon typed a letter using the device to future President Martin Van Buren. "I am satisfied from my knowledge of the printing business," he wrote, "as well as from the operations of the rough machine with which I am now printing, that the Typographer will be ranked with the most novel and most useful, as well as most pleasing inventions of the age." These words would prove prophetic, although not immediately. Two months later, on July 23, 1829, Burt received his patent, signed personally by President Andrew Jackson.

The invention didn't really take hold until the 20th century, launching the typewriter on a good long run. I started on one myself in my early days in journalism. In newsrooms, as in other businesses and everyday life, they gave way, in succession, to the IBM Selectric typewriter; a variety of bulky desktop computers; Radio Shack's TRS-80 (known by traveling political writers as the "Trash Eighty"); more advanced laptops, cellphones, notebook computers, and the various hand-held devices a new generation of reporters use to transmit multi-platform dispatches in tweets, stories, photos, and video.

The adaptation of all these machines -- not to mention advances in camera technology -- has only increased the pressure to be fast. Yet, as any number of news organizations can attest during the Donald Trump era, the desire to be first must be balanced with the need to be right. This is especially true if the news organization has preconceived notions, or an ideological axe to grind. Then again, this was true before the Digital Age, in the typewriter's heyday. Remember President Dewey?

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments