In today’s world of smartphones, tablets and other gadgetry, you’d be forgiven for not sparing much thought for the precursors to the host of shiny, information-on-demand devices we now use each day. Blog posts speedily typed and spellchecked on a MacBook Air or quick-fire personal emails would have seemed like pure science fiction against the reality of correspondence in the early 1900s.
Since the days of scribes, handwritten documentation had been the gold standard, and pen, ink and parchment the simple tools of the trade. The invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1439 helped to revolutionise the entire process of disseminating information, and by the late 1800s something truly extraordinary was on the horizon. Yes, I am speaking of that humble machine – the typewriter.
Today the idea of a typewriter may bring to mind images of dusty old-fashioned remnants tucked away on the shelves of antique shops, or plastic models from the 1980s stashed in office basements. However, in 1918 a typewriting machine, as they were called, was a cutting-edge piece of technology, and during World War I its cost and scarcity made it something of a sought-after luxury.
At the Royal Society, the vast majority of letters were typewritten, as were notes from meetings of various committees. A rapid increase in clerical activity gave rise to the need for an additional typewriter to serve the administrative work of the Grain Pests Committee, formed within the Society in 1916 and tasked with examining and limiting the damaging effects of pests imported in grain supplies. You would think that procuring an extra typewriter would have been a fairly straightforward affair – however, it wasn’t exactly so.
I imagine that it was just another day at the Society, preparing, sending and receiving the day’s communications, when Assistant Secretary Robert William Frederick Harrison was made aware of the Committee’s urgent need for an additional typewriter. A resourceful man, he made a direct enquiry to the suppliers at the Underwood Typewriter Company, expressing his desire for one of their newest models.
He was informed, however, that a new typewriter could not be purchased without first applying to His Majesty’s Stationery Office, which at the time was under enormous strain due to a flurry of requests for all kinds of office equipment. Harrison wrote explaining the situation, but – unsurprisingly – no machine was forthcoming.
Harrison was informed that, as H.M.S.O. was only able to import typewriters for its regular customers (of which the Royal Society was not one), he would need to redirect his request to the Board of Agriculture. Determined that his plea should be successful, he also forwarded a copy of his subsequent letter to Sir Daniel Hall, the Board’s secretary and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Harrison wrote:
‘…while unwilling to give you any trouble over an office trifle of this sort, I should be very glad if you would exercise your authority to get this through, because we badly want an extra typewriter … and they are very difficult to get hold of now.’
What was the cause of the scarcity of this essential piece of office equipment? During World War I, most typewriters were being imported from the United States. Companies such as Underwood and Remington were struggling to obtain the raw materials for manufacturing, with metal being particularly difficult to acquire, and were also having to redirect their efforts towards making ammunition. Securing an imported typewriter in 1918 was not going to be an easy prospect, but thanks to Harrison’s sheer persistence and Hall’s intervention, approximately six weeks after the initial request was made a new Foolscap Royal typewriter was finally delivered to the Society.
You might wonder why the process of procuring a typewriter over 100 years ago should be worthy of note, yet perhaps it can be viewed as a larger comment on the things we tend to take very much for granted today. It requires no more effort than a tap on an app to have a takeaway ordered, or a few clicks to have your heart’s desires delivered to your door the following day. Can you imagine having to write multiple letters, getting a ‘friend in high places’ to assist, and waiting six weeks to have your new laptop arrive? This was the rough equivalent of what Assistant Secretary Harrison undertook in his efforts to secure a machine that today, for us, is nothing more than a lovely vintage relic.