Typewriters and blindness – some scattered keystrokes

With their unwieldy, mechanical and ornamented appearance, writing machines for blind and visually impaired people capture the spirit of scientific-technological progress that was so characteristic of nineteenth century society. Not only could machines be used to extract raw materials and make the production of goods and supplies more effective, they could also be applied to social and cultural issues such as the spread of information, the promotion of communication and the improvement of education. Writing machines like the ones on display at the Touching the Book exhibition illustrate this confidence in the civilizing impact of technology. As for the makers of these apparatuses, they won public recognition as philanthropic innovators who worked for the benefit of visually impaired people.

An advertisement for William Hughes's Typograph published in Edmund Johnson's 'Tangible Typography', 1853

An advertisement for William Hughes’s Typograph published in Edmund Johnson’s ‘Tangible Typography’, 1853

Of the two machines exhibited here, only James Hammond’s model from 1902 conforms to what we normally associate with the typewriter. The earlier machine, William Hughes’s Typograph from 1850, was conceived more as a printing device, which could press embossed roman characters on paper. Although Hughes, who was the director of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum in Manchester, intended his machine for private correspondence, he clearly drew inspiration from the kind of machines that were used in printing houses and from the tactile skills of printers. In Edmund C. Johnson’s book Tangible Typography. How the Blind Read, from 1853, the term typograph was also used in conjunction with blindness. Tangible typography referred to the act of reading with one’s fingers. The term tied the different acts of writing and reading to one another in a tactile way. An ad for Hughe’s Typograph, printed at the end of Johnson’s book, describes how this “new mechanical contrivance for the use of the blind”, had been praised for its speed and ease at the Great Exhibition by none other than Queen Victoria.

If the Typograph was designed explicitly with the blind in mind, James Hammond’s Braille Typewriter model of 1902 was a modification of an existing typewriter that was adjusted to non-sighted users. With Hammond’s machine we’re well into the period of professional typewriting and competing brands. Hammond was first and foremost an inventor and entrepreneur who, unlike Hughes, had no experience of blind people. The aim of the Hammond 2 braille Typewriter was simply to aid typists with impaired vision to better perform their duties. In this sense, Hammond’s adjusted typewriter was manufactured as a professional tool and not primarily as a device that would make it easier for blind people to correspond with each other.

With its braille attachment over the carriage, the Hammond model was indicative of the tension between sighted and non-sighted typing. Skilled typists did not have to look at the keys, let alone at the paper on which they typed. Already in the early days of typewriting there seems to have been an awareness that one could learn to type without looking. In a letter from 1876, the Danish inventor of the writing ball, Rasmus Malling-Hansen, asked his brother to disregard the many spelling errors, which had been caused by the fact that he had not looked at the keys while writing. Another aspect of the typewriter that often was brought up was that it enabled people to work long hours without getting tired. An advertisement for the Remington typewriter recommended weary merchants to switch to typing with the following rhyme: “If writing fatigues you, ‘tis good reason why/You should for your office a Type-Writer buy”. These two features, to write without looking and to write tirelessly for hours, would later become quintessential features of the twentieth century typist. However, in the nineteenth century, the image of the typist was still being formed and blindness and visually impaired people played an important role in how this new technology was perceived. In an article in the occasional journal The Blind, Henry Stainsby from the Institution for the Blind in Birmingham argued that blind people were particularly suited for this new occupation and that they were fully capable of mastering the typewriter.[1] Stainsby was also convinced that it would be a good idea to establish Typewriting offices with blind employees. In a later article in the same journal, he gave a short account of a Typewriting office that had been set up in Birmingham with two blind women employed as operators. Stainsby clearly regarded the typewriter as a new means for the blind to earn a living and as a decent way to integrate them into society on their own terms.

The Bartholomew Stenograph

The Bartholomew Stenograph

A third feature that often was discussed alongside the blind stroke of the keys and the working capacity of the typist was the impressive speed by which things were accomplished with the typewriter. According to Henry Stainsby, blind typists were capable of writing up to 100 words a minute on a good typewriter. The question of how fast a blind person could type was often discussed in connection to the launch of new typewriter models. Typewriters were often displayed and demonstrated at the periodic conferences for teachers of blind and visually impaired people. The conference in Düren 1888 for instance, included a small exhibition of writing machines such as the Bartholomew Stenograph which was presented as a device that enabled the blind to write down spoken words as fast as even a sighted person. As typewriting was established as a new profession the question of how fast one could type became an important employment argument. But speed was not only a quality that resided in the fingers of skilled typists, blind or sighted. With increasingly new models introduced on the market, speed also became an important sales pitch in the marketing of new advanced typewriters.

Speed is probably the last thing that comes to one’s mind when confronted with the beautiful collections of typewriters that are kept in museums such as the Musée Valentin Haüy in Paris, the Perkins Museum in Watertown, Massachusetts and the Medical Museion in Copenhagen. It’s difficult to imagine that the blockish keys once were pressed with great speed and precision. For hands accustomed to light computer keys and the flat surface of the mobile display, writing has long since lost touch with the weight and pressure of the early typewriters.

  1. A link to Henry Stainby’s article can be found here: <http://archive.org/stream/blind01unse#page/18/mode/2up>



Dr Jan Eric Olsén, Associate Professor, Medical Museion, Copenhagen


6 thoughts on “Typewriters and blindness – some scattered keystrokes

  1. Rebecca Scales

    This is fabulous. When you publish a piece on Braille writing machines, let me know so that I can add it some syllabi ….

  2. Norman R. Ball

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and informative article. As a historian of technology currently researching machines and devices to assist the blind in reading and communicating I found much of interest and references to follow up on. i was particularly impressed by the Bartholomew Stenograph with which I am familiar from the two examples in the Martin Howard Antique Typewriter Collection in Toronto. This is a fine machine but it required the operator to learn the code system and the output could only be read by someone sighted who knew the code. As you pointed out there was tension between the sighted and non-sighted.

    Where is the Bartholomew machine shown in the photo? It is a beautiful piece of technology. Perhaps the most important typewriter for the blind was the Hall Braille-Writer which was intended to facilitate blind person to blind person communication. I would like to be able to find out more about your research; it sounds fascinating.

  3. Jan Eric Olsén

    Thank you Norman for your nice comment. I would love to learn more about your work on early writing technologies for the blind. This is a field that really emphasizes the tension between discourse and tangible things. The conference proceedings of teachers of blind students have plenty of noteworthy references to remarkable machines but the machines themselves are now scattered in museum collections around the world, which of course makes a firsthand study of the objects more difficult. I’ve read many interesting references to and detailed descriptions of the Bartolomew Stenograph but I haven’t had the opportunity to see one myself. The fact that a lot of these precursors to the typewriter took shape in the phenomenological border zone between sight and blindness makes it an intriguing story. Many thanks also for the link to the Martin Howard Antique Typewriter Collection, which was new to me. A visit to that collection sure looks worthwhile.

  4. Martin Howard

    Hello Jan,

    I have enjoyed your article and in seeing Norman’s response.
    Norman and I have become friends over the past five years.
    He lives very close tome and we get together and talk typewriters on occasion.

    I have added a very early Hall Braille – writer to my collection this year which you may find interesting.
    It is one of the first 100 made and with serial no. 25, the earliest example known of this historic and groundbreaking Braille – writer.

    Best Regards,
    Martin Howard


  5. Jan Eric Olsén

    Hi Martin,
    Thanks for your comment. Norman told me about your collection of antique typewriters which is really impressive. As I understand it, you restore the typewriters yourself, disassembling them to the smallest elements. You must have a thorough knowledge of typewriting techniques and how they developed in the 19th century, from the nuts and springs to the feel and the sound of different models. I think that typewriters sound beautiful but it’s not a sound you hear anymore in our computerized society and even if you visited a museum that displayed old typewriters, you would probably only get to see them, not hear them. Clicking through your beautiful homepage makes me wonder how the different typewriters sound. Would that be technically possible, to have an audio loop attached to the pictures? It would certainly enhance the tactile sense of the typewriters, a sound that is otherwise only found in old movies today.


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