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THE WASHINGTON POST

Annals Of Technophobia: When Mark Twain Met The Typewriter

Twain was already world famous when he first saw a typewriter
Twain was already world famous when he first saw a typewriter
Michael S. Rosenwald

This is a story about love, hate and Mark Twain.

The object of Twain's desire (then resentment): the typewriter.

Twain first laid eyes on a "newfangled typing machine," as he called it, sometime in the early 1870s. He was, by then, on his way to becoming the world's most famous writer and humorist.

At the same time, the tools of writing were undergoing a profound transformation — from fountain pens, with their leaking and smudging ink, to the pleasant sound of tapping a key whose corresponding letter was magically stamped to paper.

The new technology did not emerge with the speed of a tweet.

According to an IBM history of the typewriter, one of the first American attempts to produce such a machine "looked very much like a butcher's block and, unfortunately, performed with about the same delicacy."

Christopher Latham Sholes, who was ultimately the first American to build a typewriter like the ones that would become commonplace, was stymied early on when the only key he could get to work was "W."

But by 1871, when Twain laid eyes on a Remington in a Boston store window, the machines were somewhat reliable — at least according to salesmen. Twain and a friend were given a demonstration.

"The salesman explained it to us," Twain later recalled, "showed us samples of its work, and said it could do fifty-seven words a minute — a statement which we frankly confessed that we did not believe. So he put his type-girl to work, and we timed her by the watch. She actually did the fifty-seven in sixty seconds. We were partly convinced, but said it probably couldn't happen again. But it did. We timed the girl over and over again, with the same result always: She won out."

I found that it was degrading my character.

Twain asked for a price: $125, he was told.

He bought it on the spot.

Twain recognized its utility as a writing tool almost immediately.

In a letter he typed to his brother that contained somewhat infrequent punctuation, Twain wrote: "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 Twain fell out of love rather swiftly.

"After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character," Twain later wrote — via dictation — in his autobiography. Instead of virtues, he found the machine to be "full of caprices, full of defects — devilish ones."

Twain gave his machine to his writer pal William Dean Howells.

"My morals began to improve," Twain said.

It's worth noting here that Twain was a bit of a fibber even when telling stories intended to be true. Anyway, Twain said Howells sent the machine back to him after just six months.

"I gave it away twice after that," Twain said, "but it wouldn't stay."

Twain tried to figure out who to unload it on next. He settled on a train coachman who, as Twain put it, "was very grateful, because he did not know the animal, and thought I was trying to make him wiser and better."

The coachman eventually traded it to someone Twain described as a heretic.

Twain would ultimately come back to the typewriter. His 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi, was the first literary work to be completed on the machine, according to scholars.

Still, Twain's thoughts about typewriters remain some of his most quoted lines, especially a letter he apparently sent Remington asking the company to cease and desist from using his name as an endorsement. "Please do not use my name in any way," Twain wrote. "I don't want people to know I own this curiosity-breeding little joker."

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Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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