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09 May 2019

Perfecting the Writing Machine: Blind and Visible Writing Typewriters

Remington advert_LOU.LD21_13Jan1883new
From Lloyd's List 13th January 1883, shelfmark LOU.LD21

Among the exhibits in our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition is this advertisement for a "Remington Perfected Typewriter". Guest blogger James Inglis, from the University of St Andrews and the National Museum of Scotland, wrote this guest post for us on how far it was from "perfected".

In 1878, American sewing machine and gun manufacturers E. Remington and Sons released the Remington Standard No. 2. Often regarded as the first commercially successful writing machine, the No. 2 Typewriter incorporated many features of typewriters that we are familiar with today. The No. 2 was the first machine to use a shift mechanism; based on patents by Lucian S. Crandall and Byron Brooks in 1875, this allowed the user to change between upper and lower-case letters. The No. 2 also showcased a QWERTYUIOP keyboard, which was first introduced on Remington’s Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer released in 1874. Today the QWERTY keyboard is ubiquitous across computers and smart devices.

The No. 2 Typewriter was followed by the Perfected No. 2 Typewriter in 1879, which ironed out some of the technical bugs with the original design. Adverts for the Remington Perfected Typewriter proudly stated that “it is to the pen what the sewing machine is to the needle”, reinforcing Remington’s role in the development of sewing machines and typewriters. The No. 2 Typewriter was so successful that Remington continued manufacture for 16 years. By the time the No. 2 typewriter was withdrawn in 1894 almost 100,000 machines had been sold: it was easily the most successful typewriter up to that point. 

Yet for all its success, there was one glaring problem with the Remington Perfected Typewriter. This was a drawback that beset all Remington typewriters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The No. 2 was a blind writing typewriter. In other words, the writing was not visible as you were typing it!
To understand the blind writing typewriter design, the images below show a No. 2 Typewriter from the National Museum of Scotland’s collection. The carriage of the No. 2 Typewriter is raised to reveal the circular arrangement of typebars known as the typebasket. At the end of each typebar are letters, numbers or symbols cast in relief. Each typebar carries two characters which are selected by using the shift key. Upon pressing a particular key, a system of wires pulls the corresponding typebar upwards, out of the typebasket so that it comes into contact with the inked ribbon directly beneath the underside of the platen (the roller around which the paper is wrapped). The pressure of the typebar through the ribbon leaves an imprint on the paper and the character is formed!

1Remington No. 2comp
Remington No. 2 Typewriter manufactured c. 1887. Held at National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre. Object reference T.1960.34.

The problem is that when the carriage is lowered the typebars are concealed. The characters are formed on the underside of the platen, out of the operator’s sight. The typist can only see what is written three or four lines later, once the platen has rotated around enough to reveal their previous work.

2Remington No. 2comp
Remington No. 2 with carriage raised revealing the inked ribbon and type-bar basket. Object reference, T.1960.34
3Remington No. 2comp
View from above showing how the typebars strike the ribbon from below

The video below show how pressing the keys lifts the typebars out of the typebasket and brings them into contact with the ribbon.

For inexperienced typists the amusing results of this drawback were illustrated in the article ‘The Type-Writer and Type-Writing’ published in The Girl’s Own Paper on August 18th, 1888. The article describes how, “During the first week or two the learner’s attempts will probably be something like the following”:  

5 Bad Typing
Type sample of an inexperienced typist, from an article in The Girl’s Own Paper, Saturday, August 18, 1888, BL shelfmark P.P.5993.w.

The fourth line is particularly bemusing and is caused by the operator typing straight over the previous sentence. Clearly, the typist did not return the carriage correctly in order to start a new line. These kinds of mistakes went unnoticed because the text was completely out of sight.
Yet the common argument was that a properly trained typist shouldn’t need to be able to see their work. A contemporary account of typewriters from Encyclopedia Britannica insisted:

Doubtless the novice who is learning the keyboard finds a natural satisfaction in being able to see at a glance that he has struck the key he was aiming at, but to the practical operator it is not a matter of great moment whether the writing is always in view or whether it is only to be seen by moving the carriage, for he should little need to test the accuracy of his performance by constant inspection as the piano player needs to look at the notes to discover whether he has struck the right one.

The reality of course was somewhat different, and typists of all levels found ways of getting around the problems with blind writing typewriters. The most popular solution was to stop and check on the progress of writing. Typewriters like the No. 2 came with carriages that could be raised and lowered on a hinge for basic operations such as loading the paper and changing the ribbon.
The film below, courtesy of British Pathé, shows a typing pool from around 1905. The typists regularly lift the carriage on the typewriters to check on their work.

Raising and lowering the carriage to check what was typed became a routine part of a typist’s work. While this got around the problem of writing visibility this technique was highly inefficient. As typewriter chronicler and inventor Henry Charles Jenkins commented in a paper to the Society of Arts in 1894:  

The Remington, Caligraph, Smith-Premier, Densmore, and Yost machines all have means by which the paper carrier or holder can be turned over upon some kind of hinge, and the writing, which has been performed under and out of sight, is brought into view. Operators get used to this, that they scarcely know how often they do it, but it must consume much time.

Unsurprisingly, rival typewriter manufacturers developed machines where the writing was always visible. The first visible writing typewriter was the Horton released in 1883. A circular introducing the Horton announced: “In the Horton Typewriter has been fully attained… the invaluable object of having all the writing, to the last word, visible to the eye of the operator”. Of the many individuals this will benefit the advert claimed:

It will especially commend itself to those, such as clergymen, journalists and writers generally, who use writing machines in original composition. In the use of machines in which the writing is out of sight much time is necessarily lost in turning up the printing cylinder to get at the run of a sentence construction of which has escaped from the memory; and then, when this has been ascertained and the printing cylinder turned down again, the last word is perhaps forgotten before the rest of the sentence has been formed in the mind, so that the printing cylinder has to be turned up a second time before the writer is able to make any further progress.

6The Horton Typewriter
Preliminary circular for the Horton typewriter c. 1885

Despite these benefits, the Horton achieved very little success and it was not until the 1890s that visible writing typewriters gained much popularity. One particularly successful machine was the Oliver. The Oliver used U-shaped typebars that struck down on the paper from the right and the left. The video below shows an Oliver Visible No. 3 manufactured in 1904.


The machine that changed the state of the play more than any other was the Underwood. Invented by Franz Xavier Wagner in 1892, and manufactured by the Wagner Typewriter Company, this machine has been described as “the first truly modern typewriter”. In 1895, the patent rights were bought by John T. Underwood, marking the birth of the Underwood Typewriter Company. The Underwood was a front-strike typewriter. That is, the typebars hit the front of the platen leaving the text in full view of the operator.

8Underwood typewritercomp
Underwood Typewriter manufactured c. 1905. Held at the National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre. Object reference, T.1934.212

Finally, in 1908 Remington brought out its own front-strike, fully visible typewriter: the Remington Model 10.  The perfected, Perfected Typewriter you might say.

In an advertising pamphlet titled ‘Miss Remington Explains the New Model No. 10’, Miss Remington assures readers: “Yes, I am using one of the new No. 10 Remington Models, and I never supposed that it would be possible to combine so many good things in one machine.”

9 Miss Remington Explainscomp
‘Miss Remington explains the New Model No. 10 Typewriter’ c. 1908. An advertising pamphlet held at the National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre.

Yet Miss Remington makes no mention of the move from the blind writing, up-strike design of the Remington no. 9; to the front-strike visible writing set-up of the Model 10, which was arguably the biggest change in design since the introduction of the shift key 30 years earlier. Instead, Miss Remington makes vague comments such as “It has all the splendid points that my old Remington had and a dozen others that no writing machine has ever had.”

By 1908, the Remington Typewriter Company had been supporting their blind writing typewriter design for over a quarter of a century. While market pressures forced the company to change to the new and more popular visible writing system, it was too much of a climb down for Remington to admit that the old blind writing typewriters they had promoted and sold for so long, were far from perfect!

Michael H. Adler, The Writing Machine. London: Allen & Unwin, 1973. BL shelfmark X.620/7108

James Inglis, The University of St Andrews and the National Museum of Scotland

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian STM

Copyright James Inglis, posted by the British Library under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license. All illustrations are copyright James Inglis or public domain.

14 March 2019

From Cauliflowers to Chimaeras: A New Window onto Development

This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2019

 In my previous blog  we saw how, as she conducted her embryo transfer experiments, Dr Anne McLaren was already looking for ways of more directly influencing the environment of the embryo, in order to test what effect this would have on the embryo itself. This was part of her project to illuminate the interactions between genes and their environment in the development of the embryo. She found her answer in the in vitro dish:

In my laboratory we culture… very early mouse embryos in little plastic dishes, under a layer of liquid paraffin. Drops of culture medium are added, just a simple salt solution, with some glucose and some protein, and some antibiotics to stop bacteria growing; the mouse embryos, which are just too small to be seen with the naked eye at this stage, are then added, several to each drop, and the dish is put in an incubator, in the right temperature and gas conditions.

Now McLaren no longer had to influence embryos and cells in the earliest stages of development through the environment but could directly manipulate them, change the conditions under which they were put, and see what effect this had on subsequent development. One way in which she changed the environment of the embryo was by making what she called ‘Chimaeras’. In Homeric legend, the chimaera described a strange hybrid animal that had “the body of a she-goat, the head of a lion, and the tail of a serpent”, and throughout the literature of antiquity many other strange combinations are found. McLaren picked up on this, as she explained in Mammalian Chimaeras (1976):

…the six-limbed centaur, half man, half horse; the harpy, a bird of prey with the head and breasts of a woman; the griffon, with eagle’s head and legs, and the body of a lion; the beats of the Apocalypse, like a seven-headed leopard with the mouths of a lion and the feet of a bear; the Apocalyptic locusts, horse-shaped with men’s faces, women’s hair, lion’s teeth and scorpions’ tails. All bear witness to the ambition of Man to combine outstanding qualities of different animals into a single creature of surpassing power.

IMAGE 2-1 : Etruscan Chimaera, 4th Century BC, National Archaeological Museum, Florence, Italy. With kind permission from Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Sexual reproduction is also a way of forming a composite, of selecting traits from two different animals, two parents, and recombining them in a given environment to form an organism that carries forth the traits of both into a next generation. The method is anything but certain. McLaren’s transfer experiments showed that a lot can go wrong, the results are unpredictable, and the method can only be used within a species or it will produce infertile offspring. Nonetheless,

Biology as well as mythology provides examples of strange and often intimate associations between different species. Alga and fungus form a partnership so close we refer to it by a single name, ‘lichen’; the hermit crab collects stinging sea anemones to guard its shell; the sea slug (Aeolis pilata) accumulates nematocysts from the hybroid that it eats, and positions them in its epidermis as a defence. Even some subcellular organelles, like chloroplasts and mitochondria, are now thought to have originated as independent organisms existing in symbiotic relationship to a host cell.


IMAGE 2-2:  Lichen, a composite of alga and fungus. Photo courtesy of Hans Braxmeier. Pixabay License

There are thus lots of examples in nature of chimaeras. In experimental embryology, the term has a slightly more specific meaning, and is used to refer to a “composite animal or plant in which the different cell populations are derived from more than one fertilized egg, or the union of more than two gametes”. McLaren showed with her collaborator Dr John Biggers in 1958 that if you take two 8-cell mouse eggs and push them together, they’ll stick, and the total 16 cells will develop as a normal embryo and that, when transferred to another female mouse, the cells will grow up into “a muddled but otherwise normal mouse”. This mouse would thus be described as a chimaera.

So why would McLaren want to interfere with mouse embryo development in this way? What would this tell her about gene-environment interactions? After all, she wasn’t so much changing the culture environment in the dish which had replaced the maternal uterus, as the cells of the embryo themselves. In Chimaeras in Mouse and Man (1970), she explains,

How do genes link up with chimaeras? Well, one of the subjects that has always fascinated me as a geneticist is the interaction of genes and environment, the old Nature-Nurture dichotomy. A gene on its own cannot determine a single feature of an organism. It's only a meaningful concept in interaction with a particular environment, and the same gene in different environments may produce quite different effects. In mammals, an important part of the environment may experienced by the developing embryo is provided by the mother, before birth. Some years ago my colleague Donald Michie and myself studied how mice of the same genotype reacted differently in different uterine environments, that is in different mothers. In a chimaera one is studying a still more intimate interaction between genotype and environment, because each of the two cell populations is developing in an environment largely made up not only of its own type, as would be the case in any normal animal, but in the most intimate interaction with cells of the other type…this can produce unexpected effects.

So what kind of experiments did this new research technique lead to? One of the problems this method allowed her to investigate was the development of sex. What happens when you create a chimaera that is half male and half female? What is the effect of this altered cellular environment on the phenotypic [the traits expressed] sex of the mouse? If two male embryos are fused, or two females, McLaren showed, their sexual development presents no problems, or no special problems at least. When, however, male and female cells are fused, you would expect them to develop into hermaphrodites with special combinations of male and female organs.

What she found, however, was that in a sample of randomly aggregated male-female chimaeras, the proportion of hermaphrodites was nowhere near 50%, which is what you would statistically expect when mixing half male and half females. The proportion was closer to 10%. The reason turned out to be that the mice which are made up of both male and female cells develop as perfectly normal males. The proportion of male and female cells in the body of these chimaeras also varies even though half of each were used initially to form the chimaeras. This is because, when the eggs are fused and the two types of cells get mixed together, sometimes more female cells will get into the outer layer of the embryo, which is the layer that goes on to develop into extraembryonic structures, such as the placenta and membranes, and sometimes more will get into the inner part, in which case female dells will predominate in the baby mouse itself.

The experiments eventually showed, in combination with work done by Dr Chris Tarkowski who was working in Poland, that normal female development only occurs if virtually all the cells in the body are female. If there are a small proportion of male cells present, then the mouse develops abnormally, as a hermaphrodite. However, if the proportion of male cells approaches 50% or more, the animal develops as a normal male, and the fact that it has a lot of female cells scattered throughout the body does not seem to upset the overall phenotype or make it less male.

These experiments thus showed that sex is not only or directly determined by the XX or XY chromosome, that the overall phenotype results from regulation at the level of the whole animal, and that means that the interaction between cells determines what sex the embryo has. In this sense, the mouse chimera is not like the mythological chimera at all, because, even when composed of different parts it will still function as a coherent whole. There is often nothing outwardly ‘unusual’ about a chimera, in fact we are always composed of two distinct genotypes coming together, although this isn’t included in the biological definition of the chimera, it proposes the same biological conundrum. The interesting question in biology is how different parts come to function as a unity. No monsters here, only lots of composite individuals.

Marieke Bigg

Ph.D candidate, University of Cambridge

Further reading:

McLaren, Anne. 1968. The Developing Egg.

McLaren, Anne. 1970. Chimaeras in Mouse and Man.

McLaren, Anne. 1976. Mammalian Chimaeras. Cambridge, London, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Marieke Bigg is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Cambridge. After completing a B.A. Honors in comparative literature at the University of Amsterdam, she obtained an M.Phil in sociology from the University of Cambridge. In her current PhD research, which she conducts under the supervision of Professor Sarah Franklin, she draws on the biography of Anne McLaren to map the debates on human embryo research in Britain in the 1980s, and proposes new models for policy-making in the area of human fertilisation and embryology today. She is funded by the Wellcome Trust. 



The Flight of the Hoverfly

“According to classical aerodynamics, it is impossible for a bumblebee to fly!” said the Doctor once, around 1971, standing in the Wiltshire countryside. (Doctor who? THE Doctor. The Third one.)

But years earlier, in the 1950s, John Maynard Smith – not a doctor then or ever, except when people misaddressed him – had in fact glued one to a pin and showed why and how they could.

Well, to be honest, he had glued a hoverfly to a pin, not a bumblebee. Although he and M.J. Davies, fellow undergrad at University College London, had tried bees. But the bees were unwilling to fly when tethered, so hoverflies had to serve as stand-ins.

Their reason was so nicely summed up by the Doctor: science could not only not explain how bumblebees managed to fly, according to science – aerodynamics to be precise – they shouldn’t be able to fly at all. This idea had got hold of people’s minds because they took aerodynamics as applied to helicopters and rotating disks and then applied it to the wings of bees and large flies. Thinking like that, they concluded that these insects shouldn’t be able to get enough lift to fly.

So Maynard Smith and Davies etherised flies and glued them onto a pin before they surrounded them with, essentially, fluff (metaldehyde particles, to be exact) and flash photographed them, timing the length of exposure. ‘The resulting photographs,’ Maynard Smith remembered in 1990, ‘were fairly awful by modern standards, but were good enough to show that the velocity of the air in the jet was about one-third of the theoretical values, and the area of the jet correspondingly greater.’ Below is a surviving photograph from the experiments, numbered 11. The large white shape roughly in the centre is the fly, the white smudges around it the traces left by the fluff, indicating the air movement created by the beating wings.

6a00d8341c464853ef0240a445c629200c-800wiIMAGE 1: Photograph: Insect Flight, c 1950. Copyright estate of John Maynard Smith. (Add MS 86626)

To put the results differently, insects like bumblebees, bees and hoverflies can fly because of the air’s viscosity. Viscosity is the resistance to a change in shape, or the movement of neighbouring portions relative to one another. This means that when a large insect beats its wings, the wings drag along more air than just the air directly affected by the wing. This additional volume of air - ‘about ten times more air than you’d think’ - is large enough to provide lift for the insect; the downward jet of air supports its weight: it flies.

Why? Scale proved to be important: helicopters and bees operate on rather different ones. ‘It’s a very small scale, and the viscosity of the air means that not only the air that’s actually gone past the wings is going into a jet below the bee but a great mass of the air from all around is being sucked in by viscosity. […] We tried to publish that and never could. I was [...] cross about that.’

While they didn’t manage to publish in a scientific journal (the Journal of Experimental Biology rejected it around 1950), Maynard Smith did present his and Davies’ findings at a meeting on insect flight at the Zoological Laboratory in Cambridge during the summer of 1953. The meetings were the result of ‘attempts to bring together a group of persons with a special interest in the flight of insects.’ The meeting notes stress that the experiment had been developed independently by Maynard Smith and Davies. This was important because it was similar to one described by F.S.J. Hollick, who had, for example, published on the flight of the fly Muscina stabulans in 1940.

IMAGE 2: F. S. J. Hollick. (1940). The flight of the dipterous fly Muscina stabulans fallén. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 230(572), 357-390. Reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Society.



(The report also gives us the exact formula used by Maynard Smith and Davies: ‘The mass of air passing through the wings per second (m) was then calculated by using the expression W = mv, where W is the weight of the insect, and v the velocity of the air. Power was then calculated from the expression P = 1/2m.v2, and the average value determined for several species was 0.009 h.p. per lb. of flight muscle. Using Wigglesworth’s figures for the rate of sugar consumption in Drosophila, the efficiency was estimated at between 1 and 2 per cent.’)

The experiment and ‘fairly awful’ photograph saved in Maynard Smith’s archive are fascinating not only as an example of 1950s research tools. It also illustrates Maynard Smith's transition from aircraft engineer to biologist. He had a first degree from Cambridge, then worked as an aircraft engineer during the Second World War, and only in the late 1940s switched careers by going back to university to study biology. In studying the mechanics and efficiency of flight, both in insects and in birds, his engineering background and knowledge of aerodynamics, mathematics and equations proved invaluable.

Second, it is an example of Maynard Smith’s early trouble in getting papers published. His research and results were from hard to impossible to get past mathematically ignorant biologist reviewers. A comment on one of his papers on the evolution of flight even claimed that the author had no knowledge of aerodynamics!

‘Now this did slightly annoy me,’ Maynard Smith commented. ‘If they had rejected it on the grounds that I didn’t know anything about animals I wouldn’t have minded so much, ‘cause it was probably true. But, you know, test pilots had been trusting their lives to the fact that I knew some aerodynamics for a number of years; I felt a bit cross.’

IMAGE 3: Maynard Smith, J. (1953). Birds as aeroplanes. New Biology 14, 64-81. Copyright Penguin Random House UK.


Maynard Smith did manage to publish that particular paper eventually, in 1952, but his work with Davies on hoverflies proved impossible to publish in a scientific journal. His contacts at Oxford saved him. David Lack, author of The Life of the Robin and Darwin’s Finches, introduced Maynard Smith to Michael Abercrombie and M.L. Johnson, a husband-and-wife team of biologists at the University of Birmingham. They were editing the popular biology journal New Biology, published by Penguin. The journal aimed to reach the educated layman and schools, explaining and presenting biological research. Maynard Smith published “Birds as Aeroplanes” with them in 1953. All the things he had trouble getting into professional journals, he included: his research with Davies and mathematics. The above figure from that article translates the photograph into a more easily interpretable illustration. This article marks the start of Maynard Smith’s successful third “career” as a science communicator, which he continued to do next to his research for almost half a century.

Lastly, the photograph shows Maynard Smith in the role of the experimental biologist, a role that he later abandoned for theoretical biology. As a postgraduate he worked in the laboratory on the genetics of the European fruit fly Drosophila subobscura and largely ignored theoretical problems. This wasn’t due to theoretical incompetence but rather due to the fact that J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founding fathers of population genetics, was working down the hallway. Maynard Smith later commented that their was no point in doing theory because Haldane would find the solutions before anyone else. The switch to theory happened around the time Maynard Smith accepted a deanship at the University of Sussex in 1965. Not only had Haldane left the UK for India previously, but Maynard Smith's new duties didn’t leave much time for fruit fly farming and experiments.

It remains to clear the Doctor of any possible misapprehension that he was ignorant of insect flight. He likely knew exactly how and why bumblebees fly. He’s the Doctor. But he needed to make a point to a rather incredulous sergeant who was about to build an instrument with the Doctor’s instructions.

OSGOOD: What’s the principle, sir?

DOCTOR: Negative diathermy, Sergeant. Buffer the molecular movement of the air with the reverse phase short waves. It’s quite simple.

OSGOOD: Simple? It’s impossible.

DOCTOR: Yes, well, according to classical aerodynamics, it is impossible for a bumblebee to fly!

This blog was written for British Science Week. As part of this ten-day celebration of science, the John Maynard Smith Archive will also feature in an event on 15 March 2019: ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’.

Helen Piel
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student, University of Leeds and the British Library