Hey, everybody, happy William Austin Burt day!
“Who’s that?” you ask, because apparently you have nothing better to do with your time than to ask pointless questions about silly stuff you read on the Internet.
Well, here’s a huge clue: QWERTY.
That’s right, in 1829, 180 years ago today–and I’m not making this up—American inventor and statesman William Austin Burt filed his patent for the typographer, which many people consider the earliest predecessor to the modern typewriter.
Burt’s typographer wasn’t much of a machine. It used a selection dial rather than keys, and it put text on paper slower than you could do it by hand. No surprise there, I suppose, as Burt worked in two notoriously unhurried and inefficient professions during his career, serving both as the first postmaster in Mount Vernon, Mich., and later as a state legislator.
Poor Burt never was able to sell his magic writing gadget. But he did all right for himself by also inventing a solar compass and using it discover one of the United State’s largest iron-ore deposits. That made him a world-famous surveyor, if there really is such a thing as a famous surveyor. I admit I don’t know the first thing about the business of surveying, but I’ve seen those guys at work on the highway, and they look about as amped up about their jobs as my accountant, or that old guy with the oxygen tank who says, “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”
Others recognized Burt’s genius, though, and built on his idea. By 1855—and I’m still not making this up–Italian inventor Guiseppe Ravizza had created a prototype typewriter that he called a “scribe harpsichord, or a machine for writing with keys.” It sounds more savory in his mother tongue, of course: Cembalo scrivano o macchina da scrivere a tasti. I’d order that dish at The Olive Garden any day.
Ravizza’ contraption immediately captured the attention of Sicilian mobsters.
A lot of people don’t know this about gangsters, but they’re batshit crazy about keeping meticulously neat records of how much money they’ve loaned out and whether their enforcers are meeting monthly quotas for breaking kneecaps. Many members of the Costa Nostra also spend their free time cataloguing the hundreds of thousands of pizza recipes created every year by the chefs over at Pizza Hut, proving that everybody needs a hobby, I guess.
The Mob was pleasantly surprised to discover that the typewriter not only made it easier to take and read notes—especially ones spattered with spit and blood–but also increased loan-sharking productivity by a whopping 73 percent!
This fact wasn’t lost on business owners, many of whom had close ties to organized crime and needed to make a switch anyway. By the early 1900s, secretaries everywhere were using typewriters to write complaints about sexual discrimination in the workplace to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission faster than their bosses could chase them around the old Dictaphone.
Today, of course, the typewriter is a relic. It’s been all but replaced by the personal computer, although the PC’s electronic keyboard owes its basic QWERTY layout to the mechanical wonders of yesterday, and the PC itself jams up almost as often as the arms on a 1920s Underwood but is infinitely more difficult to fix.
About the only professionals still using typewriters—this really is true–are certain divisions within the New York Police Department, which admitted earlier this month that it spends more than $300,000 a year maintaining their old clickety-clackers to write reports. Most other typewriter aficionados are useless relics themselves—those slow-moving workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, and journalists who still cling to the idea that each of their words is so precious they need to carefully hammer them out with black ink on a platen.
As for myself, I haven’t used a typewriter in years. But I hope you’ll join me today in saluting William Austin Burt. He’s a true American legned legend.