Interchangeable

04 12 blickensderfer typewrtierToday I am celebrating the patenting of the first portable typewriter in 1892 and I am writing it on my first portable computer, for reasons that may become clear later. Also, I am celebrating the fact that it was invented by a man named George Canfield Blickensderfer. What a brilliant name. Here it is on the right… The typewriter, not my computer. I rather like it. It has some sort of insect quality that I can’t quite put my finger on. It looks as though it belongs in more in David Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ than in the real world.


Blickensderfer came up with the idea for a portable writing machine while he was travelling about selling his previous invention, which was also brilliant, but rather hard to describe. It was a kind of tiny railway that was used in large department stores; a store carrier service that could transport packages and money from different store counters to a central packing station and back. So you could take something to the counter and pay for it. It would be sent off in a little basket to a back room somewhere. Then come whizzing back, all wrapped up, along with your change.


He did quite a lot of travelling whilst he was selling his store carriers and he thought how useful it could be to write letters and invoices whilst on the train or in a hotel room. There were other typing machines around but mostly, they had two problems. Their design meant that you couldn’t see what you were typing until you scrolled the paper up and also they were very heavy and definitely desk bound. Blickensderfer invented the laptop model. You could see the letters as you typed them. He managed to redesign it so that it had fewer parts; only 250 as opposed to 2,500. He also made it much lighter, it was one fifth of the weight of other typewriters. The letters were embossed on a wheel instead of having a separate type bar attached to each key. 04 12 ibm typeballThis made it good for export as the type wheel was interchangeable and could be used for different languages. The Blickensderfer could be modified to type in Slovak, in Armenian, in Hebrew.  His wheel arrangement was reinvented in 1961 by IBM in their ‘Selectric’ model.


This interchangeable ball idea seems like a wonderfully easy solution to a person who may, for example, have tried to download Windows 10 onto her laptop which subsequently crashed potentially taking over a year’s worth of blog notes with it. So much easier to change your operating system in the 1890s.


Blickensderfer exhibited his machine at a trade fair at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. He employed his secretary, a lady called May Munson who had bright red hair, to demonstrate the machine.  May and her typewriter attracted so much attention that it seems all the other typewriter manufacturers packed up their booths. The exhibition brought him hundreds of orders and his first export deals. By 1896, he was producing 10,000 machines a year.


Instead of using the QWERTY keyboard he used a different arrangement with the most common keys located on the bottom row. the idea was, that if the typist had their fingers mostly on the bottom row of keys, they wouldn’t have to move their hands as much and typing would be quicker. Like other alternative keyboard layouts, it didn’t really last. His alternate layout is known as DHIATENSOR, for obvious reasons if you look at one.


In 1900, he invented the the first electric typewriter. Although I read that its speed and efficiency was not matched until IBM came along with their reinvented writing ball, it doesn’t seem to have been very popular. Very few are still in existence.

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All Safe

03 23 elisha graves otisToday I am celebrating the life of Elisha Graves Otis who, on this day in 1857, installed the first elevator that was able to safely carry human passengers at 448 Broadway, Manhattan. The E V Haughwout Building didn’t strictly need an elevator. At five storeys high, it was no taller than many of the other buildings in New York. It was a store that sold cut glass, silverware, hand painted china and chandeliers. Its owner knew that people would come to see the elevator and hopefully stay to buy his wares.

Simple hoists had been around For a very long time. The first recorded example was a device built by Archimedes in the third century BC. The Romans used hoists at the Colosseum to raise wild animals from its underground labyrinth up to the floor of the arena. King Louis XV of France had a device installed at Versailles that he called a ‘flying chair’. It allowed his mistresses to visit him in secret. It seems to have been a sort of cabinet that the user hauled up and down by pulling on a rope. King Louis and his mistresses were exceedingly lucky that the rope held out. Early hoists had one major flaw. If the rope broke the whole thing just plummeted to the ground.

Elisha Otis was a born tinkerer. He invented an automatic lathe that could turn out bedsteads four times faster than a human could make them. After that he started designing a safety brake for trains and an automatic bread oven. In 1851 he moved to Yonkers, New York and took over an old sawmill. He wanted to turn it into a bedstead factory, but there was a lot of stuff that needed moving first. He really needed a hoist to move things from floor to floor but he knew they were unreliable and sometimes broke. He and his two sons applied themselves to the problem. They hit on a way of improving the safety by adding brakes to the mechanism. If the hoist should fall at excessive speed, there were rollers that would lock the elevator into its guides and prevent it from falling to the ground.

He didn’t patent the device immediately. In fact, he did not patent it until 1861. But when the bedstead making didn’t work out he built and sold three of his improved ‘safety hoisters’ in 1853. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great business man back then. When he made his first sale, he accepted a cannon and its carriage in part payment. By the end of the year his company was worth only $122.71, and that’s only if you include two petrol cans and a second hand lathe.

03 23 elisha otis1854Luckily, he was rescued by P T Barnum who helped him inject a bit of showmanship into the operation. He paid Otis $100 to bring his contraption to his ‘World’s Fair’ at the Crystal Palace in New York. There, he was suspended high above the crowds on a platform that was held in place by a single rope. Doffing his top hat, he waited for the crowd’s attention then instructed an assistant to cut through the rope with an axe. His audience were terrified when the platform began to plunge floorward, it fell about two feet and then the spring operated brakes came into effect. He announced calmly “All safe, gentleman. All safe.”

After this his business improved considerably. For the rest of 1854, he sold one elevator a month. In 1855 they almost doubled and then doubled again the following year. and he modified his invention so that it was able to carry people from floor to floor safely. By the 1860s his invention had made it possible to increase the height of buildings considerably. Even when modern materials allowed people to build 20, 30 or 40 storeys high, those buildings would have been useless without Elisha’s elevator.

While I was reading about elevators today, I discovered that the first elevator shaft pre-dated the first elevator by four years. The Cooper Union Building was designed with a shaft because Mr Cooper was pretty confident that someone would soon invent the elevator to go inside it. He chose to build a cylindrical shaft. Later, Otis designed a special elevator to go inside it.

Bottled Up

11 17 nicholas appertToday is the birthday of Nicolas Appert, who was born in 1749 in Châlons-sur-Marne. He worked in Paris variously as a chef, confectioner and distiller. I’m celebrating his birthday today because he is the person who invented a method of storing food in airtight containers that could preserve it for years. He used wide mouthed glass bottles sealed with cork and wax, but his method led to the invention of canned food.

In 1795 the French military had offered a prize of 12,000 Francs to anyone who could come up with a new method of preserving food. Getting fresh food was difficult for soldiers on the march and for sailors on long voyages. They could only really carry meat that had been preserved in salt or dry biscuits. Not very nice, and also not very good for you. Napoleon knew that an army marches on its stomach and he was looking for a better alternative.

Appert knew that wine spoiled when it came into contact with the air and he felt the same was probably true of food. He spent years experimenting with different types of food. He heated it in the containers to varying temperatures before he sealed the bottles and kept careful notes. He experimented with different sorts of containers. He knew champagne bottles were strong but the necks were too small, so he had to get his own specially made. Appert had no idea that, in heating up the food to a high temperature, he was killing the bacteria in it. It would be more than fifty years before Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization as a method of killing bacteria in milk and wine.

In 1810 samples of Appert’s preserved foods were given to Napoleon’s troops on a four month sea voyage. He provided eighteen different foods all sealed in his glass containers. Among them were partridges, vegetables, milk, and broth. None of the food and spoiled and everyone thought it tasted very good. Appert was presented with his prize by Napoleon himself. He also wrote a cookery book explaining his method so that anyone would be able to do it. It has the rather unappetizing title of: ‘The Book of All Households: or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years.’

While Appert’s invention is certainly a brilliant one, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned him today, had I not read that on one occasion, as a sort of publicity stunt, he bottled and preserved an entire sheep. For all my searching, I have not been able to find any more information about this, but I really hope it’s true. He sounds like a nineteenth century Damien Hirst.

Later the same year a man named Peter Durand patented a similar method in Britain, but he used a steel can coated with tin to prevent rusting. The cans proved far more durable that Appert’s glass bottles. Unfortunately, you would need a hammer and chisel to open one, as the can opener was not invented until 1855.

Good Vibrations

11 15 louis bertrand castelToday I am celebrating the birthday of Louis Bertrand Castel, a mathematician and Jesuit priest, born in Montpellier, France in 1688. He doesn’t sound very interesting at first glance, but if this blog has taught me anything, it is that Jesuit priests are not always what they seem. If they were also men of science, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they often had a hell of a time trying to reconcile their findings with a belief in God which has produced some interesting results. In addition to this, he was also clearly blessed with synaesthesia.

Castel had read Newton’s ‘Opticks’. He didn’t like Newton, he didn’t like the way he was forever trying to analyse and explain stuff when it was perfectly obvious that God had done it all. But Newton had noticed an odd co-incidence when he was studying the way light is split into a rainbow by a prism. Newton had identified seven colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. He had also measured the space occupied by these colours in his rainbow and noted that they were exactly equal to the different lengths a string needed to be to sound out the seven notes on a diatonic scale.

Newton did not draw any conclusions from this, but Castel did. In 1725, he was very excited about it. He thought that, by assigning a colour to each note, it should be possible to build a musical instrument that not only played notes but also showed us the colour of that note. It would produce a symphony for the eyes as well as the ears. Castel thought that would be brilliant. He pointed out that people do not enjoy hearing a single tone, but they do like music. But as people are generally much happier looking at a single colour than they are hearing a continuous tone, how much more would they enjoy looking at lots of colours that were changing all the time? Castel thought it would be a lot. He says: “It is pre-eminently the continuous change of impressions that gives us the most enjoyment and that is why we enjoy a piece of music more than a painting.” This is debatable isn’t it?. Maybe he was carried away by his idea. Maybe he just didn’t like painting very much. Another advantage would be that once you were attuned to what he called the ‘ocular harpsichord’ you would also be able to hear music when you looked at a painting.

Then, the following year, he got even more carried away. He knew that sound was caused by vibrations and that those vibrations were felt in the ear. If the vibrations were harmonious, they created pleasure in the soul. So surely colour must affect us in the same way. The sight of harmonious colours must cause pleasurable vibrations somewhere in the body. Probably all of our senses work like this. He was sure this was how God had originally intended us to sense the world around us; that it was a faculty we had lost since the fall of Adam. Potentially, you could build other instruments that appealed to our other senses. There could be a music of flavour, of scents, of touch. You might be wondering what these instruments would look like. But luckily, he describes them for us:

1. Take some forty scent bottles filled with different perfumes, cover them with valves, and arrange them so that the pressing of the keys open these valves: there you are for the nose.

2. On a board arrange objects that can make different impressions on the hand, and then let the hand come down on each of them: there you are for the touch.

3. Arrange likewise some objects that taste fine, interspersed with bitter objects. But am I talking to people who have to be told everything?

11 15 colour wheelYou might also be wondering what the ocular harpsichord looked like and if he ever built one. Castel was a thinker, not a doer, but, by 1734, everyone was so interested that he was ‘forced’ to build one. One of his problems was, with only seven available colours, how was he to represent the five extra sharps and flats in the octave? He had another look at Newton’s rainbow and perceived that there were actually extra colours where two blended. For example, between blue and green there is a colour he calls celadon (which we assume is the same as cyan) On closer inspection he found that there were exactly twelve colours, which was fortuitous, they were: Blue, celadon, green, olive, yellow,fallow, nacarat, red, carmine, violet,agate and violaceous. To represent different octaves he aimed to darken the colour for lower sounds and lighten them for higher ones.

In 1739 a musician called Georg Philipp Telemann claimed to have seen it and describes it in some detail:

“To have it sound a tone, one touches a key with a finger and presses it, and thereby a valve is opened that produces the chosen tone. … At the same time, when the key opens the valve to produce the tone, Father Castel has fitted silken threads or iron wires or wooden levers, which by push or pull uncover a coloured box, or a ditto panel, or a painting, or a painted lantern, such that at the same moment when a tone is heard, a colour is seen.”

And in the same year Castel himself tells us it had lanterns with which: “wonderful effects can be produced using glasses, horn, nettings, taffetas, oiled or rather varnished sheets of paper, especially when the lanterns are made as mobile as mine are.” Yet when Alban Butler, who wrote all the awful martydom stories we sometimes refer to on this blog, visited him in 1745 he found the instrument to be unfinished. Poor Castel. Public interest in his imaginary instrument was so great that he was compelled to spend the rest of his life trying to make it a reality. He never really succeeded, not to his own satisfaction anyway, though he did demonstrate it a couple of times. In the end he was left with this sad but rather eloquent thought:

“The nature of things is diminished, agitated, inadequate. The whole game of the universe, just as that of the rainbow and of music, is in a minor key, … in violet, in black, or in semi-black. All of nature, all our arts, all our organs, all our senses, all our faculties are in mourning for their initial perfection. Everything is doomed in our hands and around us, everything is in discord and in dissonance.”

11 15 color organThe idea of a musical instrument that also produces colour has resurfaced occasionally throughout history. In 1877 an American artist and inventor called Bainbridge Bishop patented what he called a ‘color organ’.which relied on coloured glass to produce the effect. He built three of them but each was destroyed in a fire, one of them being in the home of P T Barnum. At first glance, you might be thinking there may be some kind of conspiracy theory behind this. But what seems more likely is that these instruments just had a tendency to cause a fire. I read through his patent application and I think the explanation might lie in the phrase: “…and thus, if a strong light be placed at the rear of the device…”

Flight Of Fancy

08 08 ballon 1Today I want to talk about balloons. I mentioned the Montgolfier brothers historic flight back in June. I assumed theirs was the first hot air balloon, but I have found a prior claim. On 8th August 1709 a Jesuit priest called Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão demonstrated his hot air balloon to King John V of Portugal.

Bartolomeu was born in the Portuguese colony of Santos in Brazil in 1685. He was educated in a seminary in Cachoeira and there, sometime before 1699, he invented a machine that would carry water up hill. He was granted a patent by the King of Portugal in 1707. It was the first patent to be granted to a Brazilian.

He sailed to Portugal in 1708 and managed to get an audience with the King and Queen. He asked to be granted another patent, this time for what google translate tells us was an instrument for walking in the air which is delightful, but probably not quite right. It was granted in April 1709.

08 08 balloon 2Bartolomeu was pretty secretive about his plans but everyone was pretty interested. The only person who had access to the place where he was working on his invention was a fourteen year old boy called Francisco who was his student. Francisco made a rather fanciful drawing of a flying machine which is really nothing like the balloon that Bartolomeu was working on. The priest didn’t want anyone else stealing his idea so the two decided to publish the drawing, just to throw everyone off the scent. The drawing, which shows an unlikely bird-shaped contraption, suggests that it was propelled by magnets and could be kept afloat using bellows. The ruse worked pretty well. Even his Wikipedia entry says this is what he was building.

He demonstrated his balloon at the Royal Palace in Lisbon in August of that year. It relied on some kind of heat source to make it rise. He made several attempts, some of which caught fire and at least one was knocked down by servants because they feared (probably with good reason) that is was going to set the curtains on fire. The most successful flight was on 8th August when the balloon rose right up to the ceiling before floating gently down. There seems to have been another demonstration in October which was witnessed by several people including a cardinal who later become Pope Innocent XIII.

Bartolomeu’s balloon idea did not really catch on. People were worried that they might fly away and set fire to things. Really the same sort of concerns we have about sky lanterns today. He may have come up against some opposition from the Inquisition as a result of his godless flying machines. He certainly moved to Spain rather suddenly. By the time the French came to investigate the story after the Montgolfier flight of 1783 all that was left of his work were Fransisco’s drawing and a few people who remembered that he had been given the surname Voador (Flying Man).