Letters from America: D’Arcy Thompson’s Remington 12

Volunteer MUSA blogger, Morag Allan Campbell, writes about one of MUSA’s intriguing objects in Gallery 3: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s typewriter.

When D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson heaved his typewriter onto his desk sometime in the 1920s, the era of mechanised writing was well underway.  Printmakers and inventors had been messing around with the idea since at least the sixteenth century but, by the mid nineteenth century, a pressing need for a fast, efficient way to deal with all the paperwork generated by the industrial revolution had prompted the invention of a plethora of devices, such as the Hansen Writing Ball and a collection of machines resembling small pianos.

The typewriter as we know it evolved from a device created by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Samuel W. Soule and lawyer Carlos Glidden. In 1868, they patented an invention that would become the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, and that patent was then sold to businessmen James Densmore and George Yost.  They in turn entered into an agreement with E. Remington and Sons to commercialise the machine, and the typewriter went into production in March 1873.

E. Remington and Sons was a New York Company, founded way back in 1816, and known for manufacturing first guns, then sewing machines. The company then embraced the typewriter revolution, rolling out the highly successful Remington 2 in 1878, followed by a long series of classic models. D’Arcy Thompson’s machine of choice, the Remington Standard No. 12, appeared on the market in 1922 – a ‘frontstrike’ machine, as opposed to the ‘upstrike’ action of earlier models, it was essentially a modified version of the Remington No. 10, featuring a cover to reduce noise, and to keep out dust and dirt, as well as refinements to the type bar construction and ribbon mechanism.

Remington 12

The Remington No. 12 was a far cry from the very early and largely experimental writing machines on which the keyboard was arranged alphabetically, and featured the familiar QWERTY layout we know today.  This arrangement is generally credited to Sholes, who developed it to minimise the jamming of the delicate mechanism, although recent theories have explored the idea that telegraph operators, who used and tested the early systems, also found the alphabetical model to be confusing when translating Morse code.   A number ‘1’ key was missing from early typewriters, including the Remington No. 12, as the lower-case letter ‘l’ provided an acceptable alternative and meant one less type bar to jam the mechanism.

You might notice that it is possible to spell out the word ‘typewriter’ entirely from keys on the top line – this was to provide an easy example for salesmen to use to demonstrate the machine.

Sholes was never satisfied that the QWERTY layout was the most efficient arrangement and spent the rest of his life tinkering with the design in an effort to create the perfect configuration.  But the QWERTY arrangement of 43 keys in a seemingly random order was in place by 1873, and there to stay, as the efficient operation of the machines required training and therefore collective loyalty to the system.  Thus the QWERTY keyboard survives today into modern day technology, even though the mis-striking of computer keys would no longer result in jammed type bars in the mechanism.  We even still have a ‘shift’ key, though the need to ‘shift’ the typewriter carriage into place to select a different character is long gone.

Famous devotees of Remington typewriters included Agatha Christie, who used the Remington Portable Nos. 2 and 5, and Margaret Mitchell, who may have rattled ‘Gone with the Wind’ out on her Portable No. 3.  Rudyard Kipling apparently favoured the Remington Noiseless.

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was Professor of Biology at University College, Dundee, from 1884, and Professor of Natural History at St Andrews from 1917 until his death in 1948.  His Remington No. 12 sits on display in the Museum of the University of St Andrews beside a copy of a 1917 edition of On Growth and Form, and was used by Thompson while making notes for the second edition, published in 1942.

 

About Morag Allan Campbell

Morag is in the third year of her Ph.D. in Modern History, researching madness and childbirth in nineteenth century Scotland.  She has recently researched, designed and curated an exhibition, Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum, currently on display at the University of Dundee until June 9 2018.  Further information about the exhibition and her research is available at

https://thisdistressingmalady.wordpress.com.

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