TOM SAWYER and the DIABOLUS EX MACHINA
by Leigh Lundin
Earlier this week, Melodie linked Mark Twain and technology of the Kindle. Rob added that Samuel Clemens went bankrupt backing a new a new typesetter and Leigh mentioned Twain published the first novel written on a typewriter. Steve ironically followed with an article about how difficult it is to decipher printed text into digital form.
Relating to Twain
It isn’t possible to grow up in an old family without lots of legends. On the distaff side of my family, some are actually provable. Andrew Jackson really did sign the land grant, two ancestors truly did come over on the Mayflower (Francis Cooke and Stephen Hopkins), while other relatives were already here to greet them. Genealogy can be colorful when antecedents bed-hopped on the wrong side of the sheets.
On my father’s side of the family were frontiersmen and pioneers who claimed kinship with Daniel Boone and Daniel Beard, but their most rumored legend had it Samuel Clemens was a cousin. (Some members spell their family surname Clemons, which they insist is a variant, like Lundine and Lunden, and like Kemper, Kamper, and Camper on my mother’s side.)
Lest the Twain Shall Meet
Stephen Hopkins was an intriguing adventurer, but if I had to claim an ancestor, Mark Twain would top my list. We both are (put politely) quirky; enjoy writing, technology, and travel; managed to be broke, and are strikingly handsome. Admittedly, Twain dressed much cooler than I do.
When it came to new technology, Twain was fascinated but critical, especially sour about new military hardware such as the Gatling gun, but intrigued by scientific topics as unlikely as microbiology . He was an attendee at World’s Fair Expositions, updating himself on the latest science and engineering.
Clemens was a futurist, interested in products for the home and personal use, devices such as burglar alarms, telephones, automobiles, and the potential of air conditioning. He was what we’d call an early adopter or ‘bleeding edge’.
Sholes & Glidden type-writer
Twain bought some of the earliest typewriters, clunky, cranky machines. An early model used a foot treadle as a space bar. He claimed authorship of the first novel typed for publication, although "a machinist" did most of the actual typing.
Harper's Weekly, 18 March 1905
I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house for practical purposes. I will now claim– until dispossessed--that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature. The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects– devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to (author, friend) Howells. … He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.
Saml. L. Clemens
Some confusion surrounds which novel was actually typed. Twain claimed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was first but a historical researcher suggests the first was Life on the Mississippi (1883). Looking at the timelines, both could have been typed. Judging from one of Twain’s typical ‘testimonials‘ to Remington in 1875, he certainly owned a ‘typing machine’ at the same time he was writing Tom Sawyer:
Hartford, March 19, 1875
Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don't like to write letters, and so I don't want people to know that I own this curiosity-breeding little joker.
Saml. L. Clemens
Hartford, June 25, 1875
The machine is at Bliss's, grimly pursuing its appointed mission, slowly & implacably rotting away at another man's chances for salvation.
I have sent Bliss word not to donate it to a charity (though it is a pity to fool away a chance to do a charity an ill turn), but to let me know when he has got his dose, because I've got another candidate for damnation. You just wait a couple of weeks & if you don't see the TypeWriter coming tilting along toward Cambridge with the raging hell of an unsatisfied appetite in its eye, I lose my guess.
Saml. L. Clemens
Following the American Civil War and the explosion of newspapers across the nation, publishers desperately needed to evolve from handset type. Two primary competitors emerged, James Paige and Ottmar Mergenthaler.
Twain and his wife invested in the Paige Compositor. With such a catchy name and 18,000 parts, how could they lose?
The machine was highly sophisticated but highly complex. Like some engineers, Paige was a perfectionist, constantly improving his machine rather than releasing it for use. As he was toying, the competition ate his lunch.
While Paige continually tinkered, Mergenthaler was manufacturing and selling his considerably simpler device, improving as needed, a model for technology companies. The Linotype Company would go on to dominate printing in the next century. When the Macintosh came out with ‘desktop publishing’, Linotype developed a Mac-compatible Postscript RIP (raster image processor) in short order.
Mr Paige lost everything and died in the poorhouse. Twain declared bankruptcy and also declared he’d "learned two things from the experience: not to invest when you can’t afford to and not to invest when you can."
And that is the story how Mark Twain still affects the publishing industry.
Get lost! Can’t you see I’m busy?