Hansen Writing Ball

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Writing ball - model from 1870
Writing ball - model from 1874
Writing ball - model from 1878
A sample from a letter written by Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1872 to his brother Jørgen - on the writing ball
Rasmus Malling-Hansen - 1890
The keyboard of the writing ball

The Hansen Writing Ball was invented in 1865 by the reverend and principal of the Royal Institute for the deaf-mutes in Copenhagen, Rasmus Malling-Hansen, 1835–1890. The writing ball was first patented and entered production in 1870, and was the first commercially produced typewriter. In Danish it was called the skrivekugle ("writing ball"). The Hansen ball was a combination of unusual design and ergonomic innovations, but like most of the early-19th-century typewriters, it did not allow the paper to be seen as it passed through the device.

Overview[edit]

Its distinctive feature was an arrangement of 52 keys on a large brass hemisphere, causing the machine to resemble an oversized pincushion. From the book Hvem er Skrivekuglens Opfinder, written by Malling-Hansen's daughter Johanne Agerskov, we know how Malling-Hansen made experiments with a model of his writing ball made out of porcelain. He tried out different placements of the letters on the keys, to work out the placement that led to the quickest writing speed. He ended up placing the most frequently used letters to be touched by the fastest writing fingers, and also placed most of the vowels to the left and the consonants to the right. This, together with the short pistons which went directly through the ball, made the writing speed of the writing ball very fast.

The first models typed on a paper attached to a cylinder, and included an electromagnetic escapement for the Ball, thus making Malling-Hansen's machine the first electric typewriter. He made several improvements on his invention throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and in 1874 he patented the next model, and now the cylinder was replaced by a flat mechanical paper-frame. The electromagnetic battery was still used to move the paper along as the Ball typed upon it, and the design led to a lower possibility for error. Malling-Hansen improved further on his design, and created a semi-cylindrical frame to hold one sheet of paper. This best known model was first patented in 1875, and now the battery was replaced by a mechanical escapement. All these improvements made for a simpler and more compact writing apparatus.

It was exhibited at a great industrial exhibition in Copenhagen in 1873, at the world exhibition in Vienna in 1873, and at the Paris exhibition or Exposition Universelle. All through the 1870s it won several awards.

The writing ball was sold in many countries in Europe, and it is known that it was still in use in offices in London as late as 1909. But due to its hand-crafted production, it was overtaken in the market by the mass-produced Sholes and Glidden typewriter which E. Remington and Sons started to make in 1873.

Malling-Hansen also invented a very high speed writing machine for stenography, called the Takygraf, and a copying technique called the Xerografi—both invented in 1872.

More-or-less intact Hansen balls have fetched hundreds of thousands of Euros in auctions. Few remain in existence today.

Nietzsche's Hansen Writing Ball[edit]

In 1881, when he had serious problems with his sight, Friedrich Nietzsche wanted to buy a typewriter to enable him to continue his writing, and from letters to his sister it is known that he personally was in contact with "the inventor of the typewriter, Mr Malling-Hansen from Copenhagen". He mentioned to his sister that he had received letters and also a typewritten postcard as an example.

Nietzsche received his writing ball in 1882 directly from the inventor in Copenhagen, Denmark, Rasmus Malling-Hansen. It was the newest model, the portable tall one with a color ribbon, serial number 125, and several typescripts are known to have been written by him on this writing ball (approximately 60). It is known that Nietzsche was also familiar with the newest model from E. Remington and Sons (model 2), but he wanted to buy a portable typewriter, so he chose to buy the Malling-Hansen writing ball, as this model was lightweight and easy to carry.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche wasn't totally satisfied with his purchase and never really mastered the use of the instrument. A number of theories have been advanced to explain why Nietzsche did not make more use of it.[1] New research indicates Nietzsche was not aware that his trouble in using the machine had been caused by damage to it during transportation to Genoa in Italy, where he lived at the time.[2] And when he turned to a mechanic who had no typewriter repair skills, the man managed to damage the writing ball even more. Nietzsche claimed that his thoughts were influenced by his use of a typewriter ("Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts", 1882).[3] As one researcher has noted, "Nietzsche's interest in rhetoric and his experience of the typewriter framed his understanding of language in a highly symbolic way: the traditions of the philosophy of language versus the scientific and technological conditions of knowledge."[4] On February 16, 1882 he even made a poem about his writing ball:

Schreibkugel ist ein Ding gleich mir: von Eisen
Und doch leicht zu verdrehn zumal auf Reisen.
Geduld und Takt muss reichlich man besitzen
Und feine Fingerchen, uns zu benuetzen.

Or in English:

The Writing Ball is a thing just like me: of iron
And yet easy to twist, especially on journeys.
Patience and tact one must richly possess
And fine little fingers to use us.

References[edit]

  1. ^ For example, Rüdiger Safranski indicates it was "defective", Rüdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, p250
  2. ^ Dieter Eberwein, Nietzsches Schreibkugel, Eberwein Typoskript, 2005
  3. ^ Don Ihde, Bodies in Technology, University of Minnesota Press, 2001, p97
  4. ^ Christian Emden, Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body, University of Illinois Press, 2005, p28

External links[edit]