Edward Aveling Time, December 1890

Type-Writers And Writers

Source: Time, December 1890, p.1322-1329;
Transcribed: by T3d Crawford.

Sir William Harcourt’s much-quoted remark: “We are all Socialists now,” will soon have its paraphrase in the words: “We are all type-writers.” Everybody is going in for type-writing now-a-days. A type-writer is becoming as familiar a piece of office furniture as the inevitable desk or blotting-pad. The typewriter referred to in the preceding sentence is, of course, of the inanimate order. Although its human namesake, especially if he or she can also write shorthand, is rapidly becoming as necessary in a place of business as that incarnation of irresponsibility, the office-boy.

For the matter of that, the new invention is actually invading our private lives. It comes home, in the old Baconian phrase, not only to men’s business but to the bosoms of their families. Fortunately, in doing this, it adds nothing to the world’s sum of ugliness. Machinery, at all times wonderful if somewhat terrible to see, is in the person of a Remington or a Caligraph, very literally a thing of beauty. With their light levers, graceful rods, delicate nuts and screws, black and white keys, either of these machines is a delight to the eye, and even in these days of rather over artistic furnishing, does not introduce a note of discord in the general symphony of draperies, curtains, impossible seats and bric-à-brac.

The inventors and the business folk connected with typewriting, “claim” (they are pretty nearly to a man American) that the type-writer is to replace the pen. They assure us that the writing of a letter involves from three to seven strokes of the pen. And when you point out gently that the very shortest letter that ever was written must surely involve more than seven pen-strokes, they smile pityingly upon you and tell you they are speaking of a letter of the alphabet. You believe them, just as you believe those statistical people who say that you take twenty bites, or whatever the number is, to each mouthful. And there certainly is no gainsaying their contention that a letter is got out of a type-writer by a single movement.

But the “poor worms that are infected” with the amiable mania for type-writing are not only of the business persuasion. The professionals are also taking to the new method. Not that the term “professional” necessarily excludes the term “business.” The profession, as it, with a modest self-deprecating smile, still calls itself, daily and nightly invokes the blessing of all the gods upon the inventors of type-writing. For now parts are easily readable instead of being written more or less kakigraphically by the prompter or the call-boy. In a not altogether unvariegated theatrical experience, I have only met one case of an actor or actress who was “laudator temporis acti” in the matter of “parts.” And that was my friend, Charles Collette. Everybody else votes the recent appearance of the type-writer upon the stage as a gigantic success. And by no means the least enthusiastic voters are theatrical managers. The reading of plays to which they are so prone – especially if they are written by unknown authors – the few slight alterations, that they venture to suggest – the cuts and interpolations – all these are so much the more easily managed upon typed copies. Besides, the writhing and smitten author after all suffers less if the incisions and excisions are made in the more mechanical form of type-writing. And certain base detractors of the profession declare that some managers, obviously of obscure provincial theatres, are grateful for the new departure, as it relieves them of the difficult responsibility of reading people’s handwriting.

The learned professions are interested in the new learning of the type-writer. Even the most conservative of these, the legal, is, while whispering the Julia lines, following the immortal precedent of Donna Julia. The solicitors are the first to give way. That strange and depressed race, that, with bailiff’s men, makes day and night hideous in Chancery Lane, the law-writers, to wit, will tell you, over its cups of gin, that its calling is going more than ever to the dogs, as the anathematised type-writing is steadily undermining it. The sanguine declare that one of these very few days we shall see counsel cross-examining from typed briefs, and they even draw pictures which they decline to regard as humorous of the Lord Chief Justice taking his notes as a case proceeds by aid of a Caligraph or a Remington.

The doctors thus far have only sporadically made use of the type-writer in their correspondence, but according to the enthusiasts we are to have our prescription-mysteries ere long made out in type. So great is the belief in their creed that one would be only mildly surprised at their holding out prospects of the prescriptions being not only made out but made up by machinery.

That the clergy are interested in the new departure is shown by the naïve note in one of the innumerable little books on type-writing machines. “A wholesale dealer or broker requires a ‘per cent’ sign, and the clergyman the ‘exclamation point.’” It seems just possible that these positions might on occasion be reversed – ,when, e.g., the two professions came into business relations one with another.

As to the literary and journalistic professions – alas that they at present very rarely overlap, or, as Euclid would say, coincide – they have gone in for typing with enthusiasm and a vengeance; with, as one result, the conjoint blessing of that hardly entreated trio, the editor, the sub-editor, and the printer. There be writers – and one of them hath discoursed in the pages of this magazine upon “The Horses of the Pampas” – of a fearsome kind who shorten the lives of the most hardened of compositors. From the unmerited torture that these inflict, “Good Type, deliver us.” And now, shall I earn the gratitude of the great army of the unemployed writers or the execration of editors by my next practical suggestion? When you, oh, my brothers of the first category, are for trying your chance with an article, a story; or a play, remember that the chance becomes something less than a thousand to one, if your “copy” is typed, not written.

Two other classes of people may be noted in this connexion, without at all exhausting the list. One is of those that are afflicted with blindness. The very first type-writer I ever set eyes upon was used by one who could not set his eyes thereon. It was used by my dead and gone friend, Philip Marston, whose delicate and most musical singing seems to be too fine and high-sounding for the ears of this generation; just as the highest notes of the birds and of the winged insects of the forest are inaudible to the ears of most men. Marston, when type-writing came in, was able to at once put into visible form the invisible fancies of his “most musical, most melancholy” soul.

And the other class is the workers. All who are interested in the working-class movement can bear testimony to the immense usefulness of the type-writer. When you, Mr. A. B., M.P., are sending to working-men organisations your explanation of your going back upon your election promises – or you, Mr. C. D., Dock Director or Gas Company Secretary, are sending them notice of a reduction of wages or a lengthening of hours, use a Remington or a Caligraph. I know of few things more pathetic than to see some of these splendid fellows, honest, reliable, clear-headed, brave leaders of the labour movement, and yet, thanks to our exquisite and exquisitely just, social system, finding it an infinite struggle to read a written letter.

It is the easiest thing in the world except lying, as Hamlet would remind us, to learn to use the type-writer. To learn to make the fullest use of it is a matter of constant and prolonged practice. The printed directions issued by both the two firms running the two best machines are, with the instrument in front of you, simplicity itself. Although, in despite of this, you will do wisely to induce one of the representatives of either of the firms to come and explain the working to you. For, if you gain nothing else, you will have the pleasure of meeting that human variety which runs a close race with the cultured Irishman and the polished Frenchman – the well-bred American.

There is one point, however, that, speaking personally, no instructions, written, printed or verbal, and no amount of practice will ever clear up, once and for all, to me. I never know – and shall not learn to my dying day – upon which side of the paper, the one turned to, or the one turned from me, the impression will appear. Understand me. The thing is quite simple and everybody else knows. But I don’t. It is a case parallel to the impossibility of learning certain words in a foreign language, or to the difficulty that actors often have in mastering a particular speech.

It must not be imagined that there are only two type-writers in the market. As a matter of fact, their name is legion, and they are changing it every day. Nevertheless, there is practically a universal consensus of opinion that two of them are the Sauls, Kings of Israel, amongst their fellows. These, as the casual reader may have gathered, are the Caligraph and Remington. All the experts to whom I have spoken agree upon this – a sufficiently rare experience with experts. Please don’t imagine that I reckon myself amongst them. I only speak that I am told. And so no one will expect me to decide upon the relative merits of the two great rivals. Where doctors disagree – and I don’t mean only the family doctors of the two machines – a mere student can’t be expected to give an opinion.

The literature and the statistics of both machines is swelling visibly. In certain ways the most interesting of the statistics have reference to the question of speed. Some two years ago at Toronto there was, what was rather grandiloquently called an “International Type-Writing Contest.” Five women and four men faced the starter. Actually there were two heats in the race. The conditions of the first were: Each operator should write for five minutes ordinary letters, and for five minutes legal evidence at dictation. In the ten minutes one of the women wrote 907 words, one of the men 951, both of these using a Remington. On the other hand, in the second test the Remington ran second and fourth to the Caligraph’s first and third. This test was the writing for a period of five minutes of a particular phrase that had been communicated to the runners many weeks earlier, and that we may assume they had assiduously practised. The winner managed to knock off 646 words in five minutes, that is close upon 130 a minute.

A word in passing of protest in respect to speed contests. From my friends, the experts, I learn that speed contests as speed contests are to be discouraged. They lead to a large amount of sweating in the type-writing offices, and to the turning out of inferior work. The sweating is on this wise. As is always the case with piece work, the average worker has to be forced up to the level of the exceptional one. The use of speed experiments, not contests, is as a test for the machine. The keys of a good machine will respond to 130, or even more words a minute, whilst those of an inferior one would clog long before that rate of speed is attained.

I do not at all propose to describe either the Remington or the Caligraph. But one essential difference between the two, upon which the wordy and literary warfare mainly turns I must note. The Remington key-board has 44 keys representing 84 letters or signs; the Caligraph has 78 keys. This great difference depends upon the fact that the Remington is moved by what is called the double shift. If any particular letter is struck, a small corresponding letter is printed. If, on the other hand, a capital is required, before striking the particular key, a special key to the left must be depressed. With the Caligraph, on the other hand, each capital letter and each small letter has a key to itself. The question therefore is, whether one prefers or finds it easier to work on the one hand with the larger key-board of the Caligraph, or on the other hand with the smaller key-board of the Remington and the double shift.

The representatives of the two rival machines claim as the special advantage of their protegés as follows:-


It is the simplest and strongest, most durable, and most rapid writing machine made.

It is built of the very best material, by the very best workmen.

By reason of its simplicity, strength, and excellence of workmanship, it is not liable to get out of order, and will continue to do good work after other machines are worn out and worthless.

The system of key levers in the Remington is covered by patents, and cannot be used in other writing machines.

It ensures the easiest and most uniform action and the best work.

It is superior to all other writing machines for manifolding, a great advantage where several copies of a document are desired.

It is the simplest, most compact of keyboard writing machines, and has a keyboard more easy to cover with the hands and to focus with the eye than any other writing machine.

This machine in its various forms has for fifteen years been the standard, and to-day is the most perfect development of the writing machine, embodying the latest and highest achievements of inventive and mechanical skill,

The makers add to the Remington every improvement that study and capital can secure.


An extremely light carriage, running on two shafts, the motive power being a long spiral spring, which gives a perfect uniform motion without any vibration.

A single key for each type-bar, no shift key, and, therefore, no cross motion or wear on the carriage or other working parts of the machine.

The “caligraph” depression of the keys is only 19-64ths of an inch, less than half the depression required on other machines.

An adjustable type-bar governed by a screw running through the type-bar journal. This is a simple method of correcting oscillation caused through natural wear on the type-bar pivots. No other type-writer possesses this invaluable mechanical device. The type-bars are struck up from the best sheet steel, combining great strength with lightness of touch, and giving a clean, sharp imprint on the paper.

A flat surface for the type to strike upon, the platen being ground off in facets the width of each printing line, making the “caligraph” a splendid manifolding machine.

A paper feed-roll, rubber-covered, same width as the platen, giving a firm grip to any width of paper, and obviating the use of rubber bands, etc.

All the working parts are adjustable, interchangeable, and made of the very best materials.

The “caligraph” has also an interchangeable platen, and automatic ribbon shift.

The manufactories of the Caligraph Co. are at Hartford, Conn, and Coventry, England. That of the Remington is at Ilion, New York State. It is a special outcome of a general manufactory for rifles, sewing-machines, agricultural instruments, and so forth. A special company was promoted to take over the type-writing machine part of the business in 1881. Starting later in the years than the Remington, the Caligraph had the advantage of a knowledge of its predecessor, has made the most of it, and added to it. But as the Remington has gone on improving and to improve, the race between the two is, to an outsider like myself, a dead heat. More skilled judges must decide upon the fine shades of difference, if they exist, between the two machines.

Two points, as I draw to an end, to the which I should call the attention of the wonderful mechanical geniuses who are thinking of type-writing machines every moment of their waking day, and dreaming of them o’ nights. Equalising of the type and noiselessness. As to the former, let any reader look at an “m” and an “i.” and then ponder on the fact that the thick-set “ m “ has to be crowded into the same space, under present conditions, as the attenuated “ i.” Hence the aesthetic agonies of soul of those not yet convertites to the new learning, who petition pathetically against the crowding here, and the over-expanse there. And the clicketty-clack noise that permeates the atmosphere of a room, a building, a street, a postal district in which a type-writer, animate or inanimate, is working, must cease. They tell me that the Marquis of Salisbury – I am not on speaking terms with the gentleman – has a type-writer placed, bar the key-board, under glass case, after the fashion of rareties. The glass case must be done away with – and so must the noise. To these eminently practical points – and points so easily attainable – let the mechanical geniuses devote their attention to earn the thanks of a more or less civilised world.

And yet one last word of warning. Don’t let us introduce the type-writer into the sphere of our affections and emotions, if we have any it ought not to be used for love letters or notes of condolence or congratulation upon death or bankruptcy. Letter-writing, polite or otherwise, is a vanishing, a lost art. And since the invention of the telegraph, the post-card, and the telephone, the most potent exorcisor of this rare and exquisite spirit is the type-writer. In all business relations – in all merely mechanical devices for getting through life – in a word, for the commonplaces of our commonplace existence, the new method is invaluable. But on the rare occasions when we try to drop the mask and speak averted face to averted face, and flatter ourselves that we are speaking heart to heart, let us get back to one of the few human things left us – our handwriting.

But considering, as foreign resolutions say, how infrequently and unawares these emotional situations meet us, and how, for the most part, life now-a-days is a series of appointments, telegrams, cheques, and falsehood – so much easier if it is done mechanically – it is obvious that type-writers, like accidents, must occur in the best-regulated families. I had almost forgotten to mention that the Remington machine is worked by a lever of the second kind, and the Caligraph by a lever of the third. What does this mean?