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George Eliot and the typewriter

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In 1899, Oscar Browning of The National Union of Typists offered this interesting anecdote about George Eliot’s encounter with what was likely a Sholes & Glidden Type Writer. He recounted a conversation he had with her some 25 years earlier:

“I remember, however, that that typewriter had a certain distinction conferred upon it, because it was noticed by the famous novelist George Eliot. She happened to be in my room at Cambridge, and I introduced to her the first typewriter she had ever seen. On her enquiring what it was, I said it was a machine by which you could print by touching the keys as if you were playing the piano. She immediately jumped to the conclusion that you could produce books in that way, and that all you had to do was to sit down and play on the typewriter, and books would tumble out at the other end. She was so deeply impressed with the idea that there were quite as many books in the world at the present moment as was good for the world, and that it would by no means be a benefit to humanity if they were increased indefinitely, that she recoiled from the object with horror, and was not at all in the mind to bless the person who had inflicted this new evil upon humanity. That attitude was based upon a misconception, and, if she had known what the majority of us know, I feel sure she would have greeted it in a different manner. Her handwriting was so beautiful and clear that she did not need any such invention as I require, but she must, I think, have welcomed the introduction of a machine which was likely to give so much stimulus to literary labours.”

The Sholes & Glidden was introduced in 1874; Eliot died in 1880.

His own experience with the machine is also noteworthy:

“I think my first introduction to typewriters was about 25 years ago, when a friend presented me with what I suppose was a very antediluvian specimen of a typewriter. It stood on four legs, and it was of considerable height. I do not think I ever typewrote anything with it, because I am not sure that I could understand the mechanism; but my recollection is that it made a horrible noise so as to drive everyone out of the room. The type was inked with a tape, as it is now, but the tape, either by its fault or mine, was continually impressing terrible marks on my fingers. After about a year’s acquaintance with it, in which it was not of very much use except for the purpose of amusement, I was very glad indeed to dispose of it. Nothing can be more different than the typewriter of that date and the typewriter of the present, which is a noiseless, elegant, and comparatively harmless machine.”

Shorthand & Typewriting (London), January 1900 –

© 2021, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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