Henry Mill

From error to error, one discovers the entire truth.
Sigmund Freud

QWERTY keyboard layout for Latin-script alphabets

The history of the modern computer keyboard (an input device, which uses an arrangement of buttons or keys to act as mechanical levers) begins with a direct inheritance from the invention of the typewriter. So, who was the genius, who invented the typewriter (and why the hell the layout of an English keyboard is QWERTY, but not ABCDEF:-)?

In 1714 the English engineer Henry Mill (1683-1771), received the English patent No. 395 for Machine for Transcribing Letters, see a copy of Mill’s patent from 1857 (it was not the first patent of the young engineer, as he already had the patent No. 376 from 1706 for Springs for Coaches, Chariots, and other Vehicles (it was some kind of a shock-absorber)).

The patent stated:
…Our Trusty and welbeloved subject, Henry Mill, hath by his humble petition represented, that he has by his great study, paines and expence lately invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, singly or progressively, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and publick records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.

Unfortunately, the patent was rather vaguely-worded and contains no description of the apparatus (English Patent Laws did not, in those days, require a drawing to be submitted with the application before the letters patent was granted), so we don’t have a drawing of the machine and there is no remaining record that Henry Mill actually built a working example of it.

The first working model of a typewriter was made by the Italian Giuseppe Pellegrino Turri (1765–1828), a noble and skilled mechanic, in the early nineteenth century. Turri also invented carbon paper to provide ink for his machine. Almost nothing is known about the machine, but some of the letters written on it have survived (16 letters are preserved in a museum in Reggio Emilia).

The Writing Ball of Malling-Hansen
The Writing Ball of Malling-Hansen

According to the legend, Pellegrino Turri had fallen in love with the beautiful Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. Slowly, the young contessa’s vision blurs, distorts, and fades. So, in hope of improving her illegible writing and enabling her to correspond with her friends (including him) in private, at the beginning of the 1800s Turri crafted a machine made of keys and metal arms tipped with raised characters. When the Countess pushed a key, an arm struck a piece of carbon paper atop a sheet of paper.

According to another version, the machine was invented in 1802 by Count Agostino Fantoni (1777-1847) from Fivizzano, nephew of the Italian poet Labindo (Giovanni Fantoni), to help his blind sister (maybe the above-mentioned Carolina), while Turri, only improved Fantoni’s machine and invented the carbon paper in 1806.

The world’s first commercially produced typewriter was developed in 1865 and first patented and put into production in 1870 by Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen (see the nearby image).

Hansen arranged the most frequently-used letters to be pressed by the fastest writing fingers, with consonants to the right and vowels to the left. This arrangement, along with the placement of the letters on short radial pistons, made the Writing Ball a very fast-speed typing machine. The type is printed on a paper surface by means of carbonized paper or a ribbon. On the original model, the paper was attached to a cylinder, which moved with the help of an electromagnetic battery, making the writing ball in principle also the first electric typewriter.

Remington's typewriter of Sholes and Glidden
Remington’s typewriter of Sholes and Glidden

The first commercially successful typewriter was invented in 1867 by Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Soule from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (US pat. No. 9265). Later Sholes and Glidden being too frustrated by slow sales sold their patent for $12000 to Densmore and Yost, who made an agreement with E. Remington and Sons (a famous manufacturer of sewing machines), to commercialize the machine as the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer.

In March 1873, Remington began production of its first typewriter. It had a QWERTY keyboard layout (the logic of the QWERTY layout was based on letter usage in English rather than letter position in the alphabet), which because of the machine’s success, was slowly adopted by other typewriter manufacturers. The first Remington typewriters even came with a foot pedal (just like sewing machines) to control carriage returns.

Acceptance of the typewriter was slow initially, but it was facilitated over the next several years by various improvements like: the shift key, which made it possible to type both capital and lower-case letters with the same keys (1878); printing on the upper side of the roller (1880); the tab key, permitting the setting of margins (1897), etc. Thomas Edison patented an electric typewriter in 1872, but the first workable model was not introduced until the 1920s.

So how did we get to where we are now, in the high-tech age of computers and plastics?

First computer keyboards were adapted from the punch card and teletype equipment. Around 1900 Herman Hollerith developed the first keypunch devices, which soon evolved to include keys for text and number entry akin to normal typewriters by the 1930s.

From the early 1940s until the late 1960s, typewriters were the main means of data entry and output for computing, becoming integrated into what was known as computer terminals. In 1948, the Binac computer had a Typewriter-Keyboard Unit. The keyboard had eight keys, representing the octal numbers (from 0 to 7), and was used to introduce either the program or data into the computer and memory. The electro-mechanically controlled typewriter was used to print the data, entered from the keyboard and data, contained in designated portions of the memory.

Biography of Henry Mill

Henry Mill was born in 1683 (or 1684), as the eldest son of Andrew and Dorothy Mill of Camois Court, Sussex. He was a relative of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560–1631), a famous Welsh clothmaker, entrepreneur, mine-owner, goldsmith, banker, self-taught engineer, and founder of the New River Company (which managed the New River—an artificial waterway in England, opened in 1613 to supply London with fresh drinking water).

Henry Mill obtained an appointment in about 1720 as an engineer to the above-mentioned New River Company and later became Engineer-in-Chief. Mill worked most of his life as a waterworks engineer, and it is known that he erected waterworks at Northampton (and received the freedom of the borough in recognition of his services), and was employed by the prominent British statesman Sir Robert Walpole to carry out the water supply for his magnificent country house Houghton Hall, where a well sunk by him is still in use. Mill in later life employed the Scottish architect and civil engineer Robert Mylne as his assistant (Mylne was appointed surveyor to the New River Company).

Henry Mill died unmarried at his house in Strand, London, on 26 December 1771, and was buried in Breamore Church, near Salisbury, with a long epitaph to his memory. The epitaph states that he was aged 87, but he is entered in the parish register as aged 88 years. His epitaph sets forth that his capacity [was] excellent in …all the branches of the mathematicks, and other liberal sciences, and in his will, proved 6 April 1771, Mill mentions his private fancied toys, a phrase which might well include models of his inventions.