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Henry Mill’s patent for “Impressing Writing on Parchment”

The history of the typewriter begins with an English patent for “Impressing Writing on Parchment” which was awarded to Henry Mill in 1714. The four-age patent (offered below) contains but one sentence describing “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.”

The precise function or design of this machine is not known, but the patent does appear to describe the action of a mechanical writing machine.

The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer.

For historians seeking to define the origins of the typewriter, Mill’s patent excites considerable interest. The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, originally conceived in 1866 and introduced in 1874, was not the first mechanical writing machine. Several other machines — the Burt, the Davies, etc. — preceded it, but none effected letters “singly or progressively, as in writing.” The Sholes & Glidden did. (Yes, the Hansen Writing Ball, exhibited in Copenhagen in 1873, achieved practical and commercial success, but not nearly to the level of the Sholes & Glidden.)

Henry Mill appears to have been the first to conceptualize a mechanical writing machine like a typewriter, and his place in typewriter history is thus warranted.

In 1895, The Illustrated Phonograph World sought a copy of Mill’s patent and any illustrations or model of the machine from Author Morton, an English typewriter historian. His reply and a facsimile of the patent (four pages of mostly legal jargon) are offered below.

Here is the version as it appears in Reference Index of Patents of Invention, by Bennet Woodcroft, 1862:


Typewriter historian Robert Messenger offers a more restrained view of the Mill’s patent, writing in Propagating Typewriter Myths: Grist for the Mill, “[T]o date the evolution of the typewriter from 1714 is, I would suggest, wishful British (and all typewriter lovers’) thinking.”

He asserts that the Sholes & Glidden “had no real precedents at all.”

My own view is that the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer was the first to realize the idea of a mechanical writing machine. (In essence, I agree with Messenger: the S&G “had no real precedents…”) Michael Adler, writing in The Writing Machine, a history of the typewriter, offered that the constituent parts of the Sholes & Glidden were incorporated variously in earlier writing machines, but no single machine achieved practical success. A person can write on a Sholes & Glidden, but not so much on prior machines.

I offer that the Henry Mill patent does mark the beginning of mechanical writing, at least theoretically. Until something more is known of Mill’s invention, only guarded assertions can be offered. That said, more than a hundred years of inquiry have yielded nothing more than a single sentence describing what might possibly be a type of typewriter.

The Sholes & Glidden was that machine.1

© 2018, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

  1. This post occassionally utilizes the Sholes & Glidden font, created by Richard Polt. []
{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Richard P December 9, 2018, 9:53 pm

    Very interesting, I hadn’t seen the full text of the patent before. There sure is a lot of verbiage following a very vague description that couldn’t possibly be patented today.

    I cannot agree that no inventions before the Sholes & Glidden “effected letters ‘singly or progressively, as in writing.'” Turri’s invention of 1808 did so, as we know from a large collection of letters written with it. The basics of the Sholes & Glidden were quite similar those of other, earlier inventions (which is not to allege that Sholes knowingly stole any ideas). Adler’s The Writing Machine is a good history that demolishes many national myths about “the” inventor of the typewriter. Adler concludes that Turri is the first typewriter inventor proven to succeed, and as far as I know, that finding remains valid.

    • Mark Adams December 10, 2018, 11:59 pm

      My idea is that no prior machine achieved “effected letters… as in writing” as effectively as the S&G, but you are right that other machines did effect writing on some practical level. I think it took the S&G to fully realize the concept of mechanical writing. I agree that Adler did dispel national myths about the inventor. The idea of mechanical writing certainly can’t be limited to any one person.

      And, yes, the full patent was interesting… but disappointing too! Really nothing more to learn, though I thought Morton’s biographical information is helpful.

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