It’s singularly appropriate that early conceptions of A.I. originated in the imaginations of people who lived in the mechanical age. Accounts of “self acting” typewriters appear as early as the late 19th century and describe machines that either transcribed the human voice or else typed human thoughts. None of these devices was even remotely possible, but it is intriguing that people so frequently attached the inevitably of intelligence to the typewriter.
The earliest reference to a “self acting typewriter” dates to 1896, though it is not clear whether a typist (also called a typewriter) or a machine was intended. The use of the pronoun “it” suggests a machine was imaged, though a note of satire runs through the piece:
Spoke his books into existence
The next earliest account dates to around 1903, with several newspapers reporting that Captian Charles King, an author of military novels, did not type his stories but rather spoke them into a transcription device. He did, in fact, speak into a phonographic recorder, but a human “typewriter” produced the transcription.
Nevertheless, some wag of a reporter heard one of these recordings and leaped to the (illogical) conclusion that King owned a “self acting typewriter. This claim was repeated so frequently that the editors of the Boston Evening Transcript complained, “Paper after paper republished and repeated the fabrication — some of them jumping at it with almost malicious glee, the Springfield Republican in particular referring to the ‘monotonous clank of the captain’s self-acting typewriter.'”
The truth, however, was discernable long before the reports. Earlier, in 1899, King told Author magazine that “[i]t is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. For this reason have I hitherto clung to the old pen and spread dismay among proof readers and compositors. But in the near future I see prospects of both the type and the shorthand writer” (emphasis added).
Undoubtedly, King would have employed a self-acting typewriter had such a machine existed. Instead, he relied on a phonographic recorder and a human stenographer.
The possibility of an intelligent typewriter
The “self acting” typewriter was technologically unrealistic in the early 20th century, but it was understood as a distinct possibility sometime in the future. In fact, not long after the introduction of the typewriter in 1874, people imagined all sorts of things about it. Some expectations were practical — electric typewriters, telegraphic machines, etc. — but many, given the technology of the day, were patently unrealistic. These exaggerated expectations left the public susceptible to many hoaxes.
In 1895, an individual, unnamed in press accounts, bilked investors out of $10,000, claiming to have invented a machine that could type entire words (link). It should be observed that not long afterwards, W. H. Bennington actually made such a machine. (His machine featured individual keys for short words such as “but” “yet” and “was,” though it is unlikely consumers felt it necessary; they likely discovered they could type the individual letters nearly as fast [link]).
In 1904, one newspaper heralded an attachment that could turn an ordinary typewriter into a translation device, transcribing formal English into any number of dialects. All one had to do was press the shift key! (link). It is doubtful that any reporter or editor ever saw the device.
Despite the obvious limitations of the mechanical typewriter, people doggedly imagined that typewriters could (or, at least, should) be able to do all sorts of things: transcribe the human voice, write entire words, translate texts, correct spelling and grammar, and even create original works. It was an age when anything seemed possible, and no idea was deemed too extravagant.
Of course, today, these technologies exist — voice-to-text, autocomplete, translation, spell/grammar check, and artificial intelligence — but, absent chips and transistors, none of these technologies could be executed in the early 20th century. What was lacking, however, was not the will, but the know-how.
Before the term “self acting typewriter” was coined, one journalist employed the phrase “patent brain-worker” to describe a future machine that would write original poetry. Strikingly, the article was published in 1874, the very year the “Type Writer” was introduced (link). From the onset, people anticipated the rise of typewriters as intelligent machines.
And by the turn of the century, “thinking” machines were even the premise of intelligible jokes:
In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke gave the world HAL, a supercomputer that attained sentience in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much earlier, though, in 1905, the Chicago Daily Tribune introduced H.L., a self-acting typewriter that could transcribe human thoughts. Reading like an episode of The Twilight Zone, “Caught By Letter Chain” was purportedly a “veracious” account by an Englishman named Mr. Wallace.
In this bit of science fiction, the protagonist relates that he had not yet mastered the art of the follow-up letter, so upon his arrival in America, he is intrigued by advertisements for a thinking typewriter.
Don’t do your writing in the old fashioned way.
Don’t spend all your days tap tapping at one of the old fashioned fifty word a minute machines.
Try the “H.L” machine, the typewriter that works by itself.
The “H.L.” is the typewriter that lives and reasons.
You can’t go wrong with an “H.L.”
It will work for you, think for you, spell for you.
Wallace writes for a catalog and soon afterward receives several pounds of testimonials, but no demonstration model. Much to his dismay, the H.L. company apparently knows everything about him, his business, his views, his family. Over the next several weeks, he receives an endless series of “follow-up” letters pleading with him to buy one of their machines. However, he confesses, “I had only ‘inquired,’ and really had no intention of buying the machine.” Nor, he relates, was he convinced about the merits of the machine, explaining, “After I had got through [the testimonials]… found that the ‘H.L.’’ really was a machine much like other machines, that it required people to work it. I was less desirous of buying the typewriter than ever.”
The H.L. company pursues him relentlessly, and Wallace does whatever he can to avoid a salesman who hounds him all the way to the steamliner for his return home. Once in England, he continues to receive correspondence on every Thursday, writing that the “Thursday letter became a feature of my life. If by any chance the boat was late and the letter bearing the familiar postmark was missing, I felt as if a day had been lost in my life.”
Ultimately, Wallace’s own typewriter breaks down, and he decides to give the H.L. a chance. Completing the narrative, Wallace explains, “I used the ‘H.L.,’ and — this is the most extraordinary thing about it — it wasn’t a bad sort of machine at all.”
Imagining products into existence
Tech companies today sometimes employ a unique method of product development: they put a bunch of people in a room with paper, stickies, rubber bands — any assortment of random items — and ask them to make a new product… no matter how unrealistic or even unrelated to their current enterprise. The idea is to get people thinking about possibilities. While “self acting typewriters” and “patent brain-workers” were entirely impossible in the early 20th century, the mere fact that people thought them possible was an important first step.
Captian King’s “self acting typewriter” –
Fake news. This is how it happened. Published in Boston Evening Transcript on June 12, 1903.
“Caught By Letter Chain” – the story of H.L.
Here is the account of the H.L. typewriter, as published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on June 12, 1905.
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