May 25

“Dear Sir,” wrote John P. Sheldon, founding editor of the Michigan Gazette on this day in 1829 to Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, “This is a specimen of the printing done by me on Mr. Burt’s typographer. You will observe some inaccuracies in the situation of the letters; these are owing to the imperfections of the machine, it having been made in the woods of Michigan where no proper tools could be obtained by the inventor. . . . I am satisfied, from my knowledge of the printing business, as well as from the operation of the rough machine, with which I am now printing, that the typographer will be ranked with the most novel, useful, and pleasing inventions of this age.”

On the reverse side of this letter, the first ever produced by a typewriter device in the United States, was a note from the inventor himself: “I, William A. Burt, being duly sworn, depose and s say that I am the inventor of the machine, called by me the TYPOGRAPHER, and intended for use in families, offices, and stores, and further that such invention and any parts thereof, have not, to the best of my knowledge and belief, been known or used in the United States or any foreign country.”

Burt, then thirty-seven years of age, was the embodiment of that typical 19th century mechanic, the self-educated inventive genius. When he was twelve years old, and had just completed his formal schooling, he found that the chores on his father’s farm in the Mohawk Valley town of Broadalbin in upstate New York, interfered with his love of books. Putting his mind to the problem, he invented a bookholder which allowed him to continue his reading while working on shingles with a drawshave. His great love was the sea, and he read every book on the subject which he could find. He instructed himself in this manner in the science of navigation, but lacking a text in astronomy, he resorted to a mathematics text book, along with several farmer’s almanacs to provide himself with a sufficient background to enable him to construct a sextant—an instrument which he had seen—and never to accurately compute the latitude and longitude of the farm.

From the study of navigation Burt taught himself surveying. Following military service in the War of 18 12, he went as far west as Michigan, where he became a surveyor and a builder of saw-mills, and a member of the Territorial Legislative Council, all of which kept him busy. In fact he found that the paper work, which he detested, kept him from endeavors in which he was more interested. Determined to & something about this state of affairs, he visited the printing office of the Gazette. Procuring a font of type, he set about building a writing machine.

Constructed primarily of wood, the machine contained a semi-circular disc upon which the type was mounted. This disc was rotated until the letter desired was positioned in the proper place, whereupon it was pressed into the paper with a lever. The paper was in the form of a roll, and when the number of lines equalled page length, a clock dial on the front of the machine indicated that it was time to tear it off. Actually, the product of the Typographer was fairly neat and clean, but unfortunately it was slower than writing.

The letter to President Jackson resulted in a patent being granted on July 23, 1829, but Burt was unable to raise sufficient capital to produce the machine. It therefore died aborning, but word of it did get around. From that moment inventors became interested in writing machines. Burt in turn became more interested in devices closer to his heart. He constructed a surveyor’s compass which became standard equipment for the United States Government surveys for seventy-five years. For the remainder of his life he always had enough new projects kicking around his workshop to make him forget that he had invented the first American typewriter.

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