The D’Arcy Thompson Typewriter – Dr Aileen Fyfe

ImageWhy would a professor of Natural History in 1920s St Andrews own a typewriter? When I originally agreed to give a lunchtime talk at MUSA about their typewriter, it hadn’t occurred to me that this was a problematic question. It is easy for us to think about typewriters as the precursors to computers and word processors; so just as modern academics use computer-based word processors, we might assume our predecessors would have used typewriters. Wrong!

The first commercially successful typewriter was the Remington 2, launched in 1874. Mark Twain bought one that very year, seduced (and misled) by its promise of speed – and hired a secretary to operate it. Twenty-five years later, Henry James bought a Remington 7 – and hired a secretary – to ease the burden on his over-used writing arm. What those examples disguise, however, is the fact that typewriters were originally business machines, and most commonly used in the offices of insurance companies and their like. The British civil service began using typewriters in the 1870s and 1880s to replace recalcitrant male hand-copyists who were demanding higher payment. The civil service initially used boys as typists, but later switched to respectable young ladies. Trained typists could get through more paperwork than the hand-copyists, and ladies were expected to make fewer demands on their employers (though by the early 1900s, the civil service had discovered this wasn’t true!)

ImageThe MUSA typewriter is a Remington 12 (launched 1923), and is believed to have belonged to Professor D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), best known for his Growth and Form (1917) and, locally, for developing the Bell-Pettigrew Museum. His daughter’s memoir recalls him using a typewriter in the evenings, in the dining room of the family home on South Street, in the 1920s or 1930s. The question that still intrigues me is: why? If he wanted his writing typed up, he could have sent it to a professional typist. He had survived most of his professional life without a typewriter, so why acquire a machine then? And learn to use it himself?

Some of the answers might be found by a detailed investigation of Thompson’s personal papers, which are held in Special Collections. They might reveal when he began to use it, and what type of writing the machine was used for. But until someone does that research, the mystery remains…

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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