The Abdication of Tradition

Being a very discombobulated man in Milwaukee, Christopher Sholes was strange. He often wore trousers inches too short for his legs. Working on and off in print journalism throughout his life, with some time away after accepting a position as Collector of the Port of Milwaukee to which he was appointed to by Abraham Lincoln, he had a knack for invention and innovation. Originally looking to come up with some sort of pagination machine, and with a few patents under his belt for small mechanical devices he had created, Sholes, on what I imagine to be a dreary Monday afternoon, came up with the typewriter, and with it, the QWERTY keyboard (Britannica). Darren Wershler-Henry in his 2007 book The Iron Whim explains how our modern view the typewriter is as a symbol of unadulterated truth in what he believes is “a non-existent sepia-toned era”, where “people typed passionately late into the night under the flickering light of a single naked bulb, sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging down, lighting each new cigarette off the shouldering butt of the last, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of bourbon in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.” Now, as any passionate historian of early typography will tell you, that is not quite the whole story. With around fifty fathers of the typewriter, “there was no single moment of discovery, no lone inventor crying “Eureka!” in a darkened laboratory” (The Typing Life), as one New Yorker article describes. No, this innovation was slow and painful, long and exhausting, and at the end of it… we had the typewriter. Months, years and decades of work for something as routine as a typewriter. My how times have changed. “A chicken in every pot” as the expression goes, suggesting mainstream affluence is the end goal of any progressive, modern society. What happens when all the pots are full? Where do we go from there, because we are a long way from the innovations of Christopher Sholes?

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