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Harper’s Weekly (1876) on the Writing Ball

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Hansen Writing Ball

Hansen’s Type-Writer, from an 1876 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

The first electric typewriter was introduced in 1874 by Rasmus Malling-Hansen (see Wiki). Harper’s Weekly (Jan. 15, 1876) noted, “The race of fingers on keys in the type composing machine against fingers at the printer’s case has been adverted to in one of the earlier articles in this series. Another contest has arisen, and that is fingers on keys in printing letters, against the fingers with the pen in ordinary writing. It is claimed that a few hours’ practice will enable a person to write as quickly as with a pen, and by continuous practice a speed of five times that of ordinary writing may be acquired.”

The “Hansen Type-Writer,” more commonly the Writing Ball, was sold throughout Europe. These machines are exceedingly rare today. A CGI video of a mechanical Writing Ball is offered here. An unpacking video of a Writing Ball for the blind is offered here.

Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 15, 1976 - Electric Hansen Writing Ball Type-Writer 01

Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 15, 1976 - Electric Hansen Writing Ball Type-Writer 02

Full scan of the Harper’s Weekly page here (large file).

© 2015, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Richard P March 1, 2015, 3:45 pm

    Great story.

    You should also look into Malling-Hansen’s Takygraf if you haven’t yet; apparently it could type 1200 strokes a minute.

    • Mark Adams March 2, 2015, 12:09 am

      Malling-Hansen was quite an extraordinary figure. I’ve been pursuing the pages of the Malling-Hansen Society (http://www.malling-hansen.org/), and note that his interests were quite modern and futuristic.

      The Takygraf, as conceived, reminds me of some space-age machine that “reads” the writer’s thoughts, though I know one would have had to actually type on the Takygraf.

      I couldn’t help think of your site, still http://writingball.blogspot.com/, but called The Typewriter Revolution, when I published this piece. Perhaps if Hansen had been more successful, we would be typing on balls — though I doubt it, as the modern keyboard seems most efficient. Definitely a point worth considering in any case.

  • Norman Ball March 1, 2015, 9:44 pm

    This is a very interesting article. I could not translate the commentary on the unpacking of the Writing Ball for the Blind. However, it should be noted that although each key had the braille symbol for the corresponding letter in order to help the blind operator select the right key, the machine actually typed conventional printed ink on paper. Therefore it helped the blind communicate with the sighted who could read what had been typed. It would not be for several decades and the appearance of the Hall Braille-Writer that the blind had a workable low-cost typewriter that produced tactile Braille Symbols on paper. This opened a new chapter in communications between the blind.

    • Mark Adams March 1, 2015, 10:44 pm

      It is interesting that in the mid- to late-1800s, typewriters were used pervasively as tools for the blind, and in some minds this was the invention’s chief potential. The Merritt, I am reminded, was employed because its typeface could be swapped (see here: http://type-writer.org/?p=3740). In this case, it appears the blind could type in a brail or Roman script. Not sure how extensively the Merritt was employed, though.

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