The Vagabond – Local man invented the typewriter


By Danny Crownover

Last week The Vagabond mentioned some of the “first” in the Gadsden area. One of these was a local man who invented the typewriter. This week we’ll look at some more information on him.

There is a roadside sign in Centre informing passing motorists that “John Pratt, inventor of the typewriter,” lies buried in a small family cemetery on top of a little hill that is not visible from U.S. Highway 411.

Not many people know that the Pratt invented the typewriter that was in universal use all over the world for many years.

In the 1850s, John J. Pratt was register in chancery for Cherokee County as well as a brilliant young lawyer. He also was part owner and editor of the newspaper at Centre known as The National Democrat. In his position as clerk, Pratt did a tremendous amount of writing with pen and ink. As a consequence, his hands often became cramped, so much so that he began thinking of a way to build some sort of a writing machine. After forming a definite idea as to what he figured might work, Pratt talked it over with printer John Neely, who began to study the problem as Pratt had outlined it.

Neely soon fashioned some type he thought night be useful, and Pratt began building a frame and the working parts. After much thought and labor, Pratt developed what he called the Pretotype machine, and began using it for correspondence, his work in the chancery court and his newspaper editorials.

By 1860, Pratt was able to display the little machine in his office. He reportedly kept it covered with a piece of white cloth but was always willing to show the machine to anybody was interested. Pratt soon saw that an armed conflict between the North and South was inevitable, so he sold his slaves, his property and all other possessions in order to go to England, where he might further study and work on his strange-looking writing machine.

In 1863, Pratt secured patents in England and France. An account of his typewriter was published in the Journal of the Royal British Scientific Society and was copied by the Scientific American in the U.S. Two years after the account was printed, the first American patent for Pratt’s machine was issued by the U.S. Patent Office at Washington, D.C., the very one that residents of Centre had seen six years before.

The patent was issued to Glidden and Sholes, who manufactured the first practical typewriter in the world. Pratt was pensioned by the firm that took his patent from him. His machine is on exhibition in the British Royal Museum in London.

Pratt was editor of a local Gadsden newspaper for some time and wrote some of the paper’s editorials on his machine. Pratt wrote his own epitaph that is to be found on the modest marble shaft at his grave. It is a masterpiece of English prose and reveals the character of a truly great man.

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