John Pratt, early typewriter inventor from this area

By Danny By Danny "The Vagabond" Crownover

 The Vagabond recently wrote about LaFayette Marion Stiff, who was buried standing up. Nearby is another famous person that should be known worldwide. 

Long before the ease of computers, there were typewriters.

Before that was the use of pen and ink written by hand.

However, the man who invented one of the early typewriters lies buried just north of Etowah County.

Sadly, his fame in the United States does not extend a great distance past his home county of Cherokee, although his contribution is probably the greatest ever made in the name of business expediency.

The first practical commercial typewriter was made in 1873 by its inventor, attorney John Pratt.

He was using a typewriter in his newspaper office in Centre as early as 1860.

The story of the typewriter is a long one. John Pratt is the forgotten man in the passing parade that dates from 1714 when Queen Anne of England granted a patent for a machine to produce letters of the alphabet to today, as this story is placed on newspaper copy paper by a modern typewriter.

In the 1850’s, John J. Pratt was registrar in chancery of Cherokee County.

He also was a lawyer and part owner and editor of a newspaper. 

As a clerk, his hands became cramped as he wrote persistently with quaint pen and ink.

Pratt began to envision a machine whereby printing could be transferred to paper by the touch of a finger.

The young man discussed his idea with John Neely, a printer. Neely fashioned some type he thought might work, and Pratt built a frame and the working parts.

Pratt began using the machine for correspondence and for his work in chancery court and to write his editorials for The National Democrat, a well-known newspaper of the day.

By 1860, he had the machine on display in his office, keeping it covered with a piece of white cloth.

Pratt wanted to further develop his unusual machine but sensed the inevitability of the Civil War.

He sold his slaves and possessions and went to England to develop his typewriter known as the “pterotype.”

Pratt secured patents in France and England in 1863. The Journal of the Royal British Scientific Society printed an account of the machine.

The Scientific American reprinted the story in the United States.

Two years after the article appeared in America, the U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for what then was the typewriter. The patent was issued to Glidden and Sholes.

Sholes was a distinguished newspaperman, politician and printer.

He belonged to an informal club of inventors. Mostly they just talked, but they also tried to perfect unlikely gadgets.

Sholes had been working on an automatic page numbering device.

During a discussion of some of the typewriter ideas such as Pratt’s idea that were arousing interest, a club member suggested that Sholes convert his number machine to a writing device.

It was just a matter of time before Sholes’ machine printed the alphabet.

“They let the funny thing go, and by jingo, it prints the lingo,” one reporter of the time wrote.

The machine was taken to the famous New York gunsmiths and sewing machine manufacturers E. Remington & Sons.

The Remington Typewriter Company was established to produce and market the first practical commercial typewriter, which was made in September, 1873.

While John Pratt’s fame unfortunately has not spread over America, it is widespread in England.

His machine is on exhibition in the British Royal Museum in London.

Photographs of the machine were printed in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

John Pratt wasn’t left wholly without compensation in the United States, as he was pensioned by the firm that patented the typewriter in the states.

But what of efforts to perfect a typewriter before Pratt’s success? 

Historical facts in this relation further bear out that Pratt invented the machine.

Queen Anne’s 1714 patent went to Henry Mill, a noted engineer of the time. Mill had watched professional scriveners tediously record transactions with pen and ink. It was slow and often sloppy.

Mill had the idea but couldn’t bring it into reality. Word of his idea spread to inventors throughout the world. At least 50 more attempts were made during the next 100 years to build a writing machine. Some worked, after a fashion.

An American named William Burt made a major contribution in the 1820’s by inventing the “Typographer,” a large, mostly wooden contraption that worked much like an early toy typewriters: you turned a wheel to the desired letter and pressed down a bar to ink the paper. 

This machine was advancement, but handwriting remained faster.

Russia made its debut with a machine in 1840, but it was impractical. America followed suit with a machine that actually worked, much like a piano.

The apparatus consisted of 78 type bars arranged in 13 rows. It was, in fact, as large as a real piano.

A man named John Pratt from Centre, Alabama, then came along.

Pratt was not the first inventor, but is consider by some as the “grandfather of the typewriter.”

He in fact should be given credit for helping inspire the man generally acknowledged as the inventor of the typewriter.


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