This Day in History – July 23rd,1829


There is a nostalgic image of the writer of the Great American Novel sitting at his typewriter, glass of whiskey on the desk, scraps of paper strewn across the floor, and the inner demons being exorcised onto the paper. These days the whiskey might still be there, but the paper and the typewriter have long been replaced by a computer. The image, however, lives on like a legend, and the great grandfather of this image is American inventor William A. Burt  who patented his “typographer,” on this day in 1829.

Typographer 2

Burt demonstrates his newly patented “typographer.”

U.S. patent No. 5581X is described as “the actual construction of a type writing machine for the first time in any country,” which was not totally true. In 1808, Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri designed and built a typewriter, but Burt’s patent, signed by signed by President Andrew Jackson himself, gave Burt full exclusive rights to his new typewriter machine for 14 years, including vending or selling to others any or all of these rights as he wished, but by 1874 others had made improvements on the machine and its name went from “typographer” to “type-writer.”

Burt’s original machine was a rectangular wooden box 12 inches wide, 12 inches high, and 18 inches long. It worked by depressing a rotating lever so that an inked letter made contact with paper. A gauge that was designed in a circular clock-wise fashion on the front of the box indicated the number of lines typed on the blank piece of paper that was up to 15 inches in length. The paper was attached to a velvet-like material belt. The belt rotated when the impression lever was depressed.

Burt’s reason to build the machine was inspired by his Government Surveyor official correspondence work as a means to speed up his work. The machine, however, despite being able to type neat letters was actually very slow; this resulted in much difficulty marketing the machine. Burt lost interest in his invention and sold the rights to Cyrus Spalding who in turn did not have any success either in trying to sell the machine to the public.  Like many things ahead of its time, people just were not interested.


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