November 19, 2018

The typewriter that kept coming back


Reportedly, Mark Twain claimed to be the first author to use the typewriter, and his entire manuscript for Life on the Mississippi was submitted to the publisher in typeface. But, despite his enamor with the “newfangled typing machine,” Twain quickly became frustrated with the typewriter.

The first typewriter prototype, by Christopher Latham Sholes via Wikimedia Commons

Purchased in 1871 for $125 ($2,413.02 today, after accounting for inflation), Twain wrote of his typewriter fondly, marveling at the rate of at which words appear per minute.

the machine has several virtues i believe it will print faster than i can write. one may lean back in his chair & work it. it piles an awful stack of words on one page. it dont muss things or scatter ink blots around. of course it saves paper.

But, only two years later, Twain quickly changed tune:

That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects—devilish ones…  After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character….

Attempting to rid himself of the devil thing, Twain sold it to his friend William Dean Howells, but it returned back to him within six months. He’d go onto sell the typewriter two more times, each with little success in severing his ill-fated connection with the machinery, until it finally ended up in the hands of his coachman, Patrick McAleer. (Incidentally, McAleer would trade it away to another person, but the history ends there.)

The fate of the maddening typewriter is still up in the air, but as for Twain, his association with the machinery would live on this correspondence:

Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge that fact that I own a machine… I don’t want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker.




Erica Huang is former Melville House intern.