October 20, 2001

Revolutionary fervor swept across France, Austria, Hungary and Germany in 1848, the year Wisconsin became a state. As those governments began cracking down the following year, immigrants, sometimes called the forty-eighters, began fleeing Europe. Many, looking for new stability, resisted the blandishments of the gold fields and settled in the area around Milwaukee. Thus when militia companies formed in the city in 1860, two of the four companies were German. A number had been brewers in the Old Country and brought their skills with them to the southeastern Wisconsin city, brewing the beers that made Milwaukee famous. They brought other trades as well, and one immigrant, named C. F. Kleinstauber unintentionally changed the face of business around the world. By establishing an incubator. But not for poultry; for inventors.

He had opened a machine shop on West State Street. With work space to spare he encouraged young inventors to gather there and tinker. There was Henry W. Roby, a recently demobilized veteran, teaching short-hand in a commercial school, studying for a career in medicine and working on a magician's clock. There was machinist Carlos Glidden, working on a mechanical spade, meant to replace the plow. Two friends, Samuel Soule and printer-politician Christopher Sholes, had recently been granted a patent for printing page numbers on books. A rather unusual combination to be sure. But so were two Steves named Jobs and Wozniak in 1976. Actually, if there's a genealogy of technology, those two descended from our four young inventors. But back to the 19th century.

All four were in the shop, along with Kleinstauber and a patternmaker named Schwalbach, taking a break. Sholes was in the middle of delivering a mini-lecture to the others on an inventor's lot and the success he hoped to achieve with his page numbering device. He said what the world really needed was a writing machine. Glidden asked why, if he could invent a machine to print numbers, he couldn't do the same for letters. Sholes said he was certain he could but had been too busy until now. That night a cold kept him awake for long hours and the next morning he passed along his thoughts and asked the others to give him a hand. They cobbled together a device combining a telegraph key-like device that would flip up a metal arm with a different letter on the end of each one (there was no lower case), which would strike a carbon paper-covered sheet of writing paper. But far too often the type arms would jam together before hitting the paper. It was reportedly the medical student Roby who worked out a keyboard design that would keep commonly used letter combinations such as "th" separated, giving us the QWERTY keyboard. Paper was advanced by a foot pedal. One author has written it all looked like someone had crossed, "a small piano and a kitchen table." But it sort of worked. Neither Sholes nor Glidden were businessmen and ending up selling the manufacturing rights to the Remington Arms Company for $12,000. The first models sold for $125, or the equivalent of $1400 today, so it took a long time for them to catch on and it wasn't until the advent of touch-typing in 1888 that sales really took off and fingers began to fly.

One footnote to Milwaukee technological innovation. When I was a kid we used to sing a campfire song called The Dummy Line. No one ever told us what it referred to. There may be many urban legends to explain it, but the following is as good as any. The area of nearby Whitefish Bay saw its first railway in 1886. As often happened, the locomotive scared the horses silly and incurred the wrath of the locals. To help the terrified beasts (the horses, not the locals) learn to love the iron monster, the company began pushing a flatcar ahead of the engine, carrying a life-sized wooden - or dummy - horse.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor

© 2001 David Minor Eagles Byte



"We must, as a nation, cease the apologetic tone we have developed with the Arab world, and make it clear that their ministers who hector us are not legitimate without elections, their spokesmen are not journalists without a free press, and their intellectuals are not credible without liberty. The right to admonish Americans on questions of morality in not an entitlement, but something earned only through a shared commitment to constitutional government."

Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
October 12, 2001


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© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte