KOLN, Germany – “Hurrah! The machine has arrived at my house!” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche to his
sister on Feb. 11, 1882, upon the delivery of the Malling-Hansen “Writing Ball” he had ordered. Hampered by failing eyesight, the German philosopher hoped that the new invention would allow him to write more easily. Yet, despite his initial excitement, Nietzsche eventually gave up his struggles with the new technology after its intricate mechanism was damaged on a trip to Genoa.
Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen, principal of the Royal Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, Copenhagen, designed his unique ergonomic typewriter in 1865 to help his students “speak with their fingers.” Hand-built in brass, the Writing Ball features a hemisphere of 54 engraved type-bars and had to be ordered individually. Though lighter, quieter and possessing most of the features of a more modern, portable typewriter, the Writing Ball was not nearly so successful as the version Sholes and Glidden brought out by E. Remington & Sons of Ilion, New York, in 1874. A journalist visiting the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris ruled in favor of Malling-Hansen’s machine: “The Danish apparatus has more keys, is much less complicated, built with greater precision, more solid, and much smaller and lighter than the Remington, and moreover, is cheaper.”
The Remington firm drew on its success in the manufacture of sewing machines when decorating the new typewriter with floral transfers and miniature vignettes that appealed to a female clientele. The first truly commercial typewriter and one of the most attractive, the Sholes & Glidden revolutionized office communication and, arguably, paved the way for a new female workforce.
Auction Team Breker’s May 21 sale includes fine examples of both these historic writing machines, as well as scores of other fine technology items: the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball (Lot 149, $78,000-$100,000) and the Sholes & Glidden (Lot 148, $17,000-$25,000).