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Mark Twain’s “new fangled writing machine”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2015

Mark Twain Typewriter

From the still-excellent Letters of Note, a scan of Mark Twain’s first correspondence typed on the Remington typewriter he bought in 1874. The note, written to his brother, expressed Twain’s hope that the machine would allow him to write more quickly in the near future.

I love that the first line is just a bunch of gibberish — “BJUYT KIOP N LKJHGFDSA:QWERTYUIOP:_-98VX5432QW RT”. Twain (or his two-year-old daughter Susie) likely was just testing out the keys and instead of wasting the paper, started his correspondence below.

In a dictation taken in 1904, Twain recalled seeing and then buying the typewriter.

Nasby and I saw the machine through a window, and went in to look at it. The salesman explained it to us, 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. She did her work on narrow slips of paper, and we pocketed them as fast as she turned them out, to show as curiosities. The price of the machine was $125. I bought one, and we went away very much excited.

At the hotel we got out our slips and were a little disappointed to find that they all contained the same words. The girl had economized time and labor by using a formula which she knew by heart. However, we argued — safely enough — that the first type-girl must naturally take rank with the first billiard-player: neither of them could be expected to get out of the game any more than a third or a half of what was in it. If the machine survived — if it survived — experts would come to the front, by-and-by, who would double this girl’s output without a doubt. They would do a hundred words a minute — my talking-speed on the platform. That score has long ago been beaten.

Update: In the letter, Twain states he paid $125 for the typewriter, which, according to this inflation calculator, is about $2600 in 2014 dollars, or a couple hundred dollars more than the starting price of the 27-inch 5K iMac. I would love to see the first letter written by Twain on one of those. (via @spsheridan)

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