Day: August 21, 2014

Technology of the Day, A Century Ago – The Typewriter (Throwback Thursday)

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Saskatchewan Bar Review, March 1936
Saskatchewan Bar Review, March 1936

“For readers under the age of thirty or so, the ‘typewriter’ was a mechanical device used for creating documents that pre-dated the computer and lacked some of the computer’s more annoying characteristics, in particular the computer’s facilitation of ‘cutting and pasting’, which is undoubtedly one of the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse and which has cost many trees their lives and many lawyers and judges their eyesight.” – R. v. Duncan, 2013 ONCJ 160

The first commercially successful typewriter was invented in 1868. In the early 20th century, the typewriter had become the must-have tech toy of the day. A US tax assessment appeal case in 1920 revealed that Underwood Typewriter Co. was making $1.34 million profit in 1915. (Underwood Typewriter Co. v. Chamberlain, 254 U.S. 112 (1920)) That was serious money 100 year ago when the median hourly wage was 33 cents and the average price of a new home was $3,200.

Unlike computers, typewriters create a document that has “characteristics” that can lead back to the exact typewriter on which the document was created or even the typist. In the second edition of Questioned Documents by Albert S. Osborn (Carswell, 1929), an entire chapter was devoted to “Questioned Typewriting”.

Questioned Documents, 2nd ed. (Carswell, 1929.)
Questioned Documents, 2nd ed. (Carswell, 1929.)

America’s most infamous typewriter belonged to Alger Hiss.  Hiss, an American lawyer, graduate of Harvard Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948. The most damaging testimony against Hiss were the documents (known as Pumpkin Documents because they were hidden in a hollowed pumpkin) supposedly typed on Hiss’s typewriter and the defence team’s failure to refute that the typewriter belonged to the Hiss family.  Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury because the statute of limitations on espionage had run its course. The Alger Hiss case captured the nation and launched the political career of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon.

In Canada, we have our own infamous Gamey Investigation of 1903. On March 11, 1903, Robert Roswell Gamey, Conservative MLA,  brought forth allegations in the Ontario Legislature that he had been bribed by the Liberals for his political allegiance, and that Provincial Secretary James Robert Stratton, Liberal MLA, was privy to the conspiracy. Gamey stated that $2,000 had been offered to him in Stratton’s office and that the statements in the Liberal newspapers regarding his supposed change of political allegiance had been prepared in Stratton’s office.  A Royal Commission headed by Chancellor John Alexander Boyd and Chief Justice Falconbridge was formed to investigate the allegations.  The hearing lasted 27 days. Eleven anonymous typewritten letters were under investigation and 119 witnesses were examined, and the affair was a sensation in Ontario. In the end the Commission found no proof of bribery. Nonetheless the scandal destroyed the Liberal Party in the election. The Liberals suffered a crushing defeat with only 28 seats elected out of a Legislature of 96.

So is this 150-year-old technology dead yet?  Is there a chance that it is surviving in some hidden, remote corners of this high tech world? After all, William Gibson, who coined the word “cyberspace”, pounded out his triple-award-winning (Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick Award) cyberpunk fiction Neuromancer on a 1927 Hermes typewriter.  Actor Tom Hanks, a typewriter collector, recently released an iPad app that recreates the experience of typing on a typewriter. Within four days of its release, the app Hanx Writer soared to the top of Apple App Store Best New App list.  If you are a typewriter enthusiast, check it out.

 

Sources:

Report of the Royal Commission re Gamey Charges before the Honourable Sir John A. Boyd, chancellor, and the Honourable Chief Justice Falconbridge

Alger Hiss – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alger_Hiss

Who Was Alger Hiss – https://files.nyu.edu/th15/public/who.html

Robert Roswell Gamey – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Roswell_Gamey