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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

October 1997

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The Editor has adapted this historical comment from his "The Typewriter: 'One of the Greatest Benefits to Humanity'?," originally published in the Foreign Service Journal, Feb. 1990, 40-43.

Typewriter c. 1873
[Typewriter c. 1873]

Technology and Foreign Affairs:
The Case of the Typewriter

By Henry E. Mattox


We can see the approaching end of a once-vital and ubiquitous diplomatic tool, the typewriter. Those apparatuses that used to turn out letters, telegrams, and the like were mechanical in the old days (defined as any time more than two decades ago), not even plugged into wall outlets. The advanced electric models that came along later boasted swiftly rotating typing heads, an absence of carriage returns, and other mysterious features.

A fast, slapdash officer pressed into duty to prepare his own messages could make a dozen typos a minute with such advanced machines. A skilled practitioner could almost keep up with a workaholic ambassador's dictation in the midst of a crisis.

But typewriters no longer have a central role in Department of State or Embassy offices. They have given way to the ubiquitous desktop computer with remote printer. The electronic PC (personal computer) age is upon us, ready or not.

Typewriting machines nonetheless had a long run in State and the Foreign Service, a span of about 100 years. From tentative, small-scale trials around 1890 to practically universal use during most of the twentieth century, typewriters played a little recognized but important part in the conduct of America's foreign relations. As the use of this curious machine replaced the longstanding tradition of handwritten pen-and-ink communications, typing at a stroke (pun intended) improved the legibility of documents and speeded their preparation. The former result was desirable, given the variations in the ornate writing styles of clerks, not to mention the elaborate scrawls of officers, and the resultant possibility of committing that gravest of sins in diplomacy, causing misunderstanding.

Speeding up communications also proved necessary, even a century ago, due to the Department's increasing responsibilities following the Spanish-American War. Between 1897 and 1907, as an illustration, messages processed by State annually rose over 150 percent, from 37,000 per year to 94,000. Although these figures fall far short of the astronomical paperwork increases of the years to come, clearly the Dickensian quill-pen-and-eyeshade method of preparing reports and instructions had to give way to something else with the arrival of the 1900s.

In 1868, a Milwaukee inventor named Sholes paved the way with the invention of a more or less practical typewriter (the journal Scientific American first used the word at that time). Cumbersome early models, many built by Remington, the gun smiths, appeared by 1874, priced at $125, and the U. S. market expanded the following decade. In 1892, Thomas Oliver patented an improved machine; Underwood entered the field in 1895 and the L. C. Smith Company in 1904. By then, demand was high and the increasingly numerous typewriters in use, while antiquated in appearance, closely resembled the manuals familiar to us in recent times.

American writers and government agencies -- other than State -- were among the early users in American of the newfangled contraption. Mark Twain submitted the first typewritten book manuscript to a publisher in this country, either The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) -- Twain himself was not clear on which it was. As early as 1878, the Agriculture Department, while never known as a hotbed of innovation, ordered its first machine. Other public agencies, newspapers, and especially business firms followed suit.

Despite lingering resistance to its use and technical problems, the new timesaving office device gained widespread acceptance at home and abroad. A typewriter -- one -- went down with the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, the Peary Arctic Expedition took one along, Queen Victoria had one in the royal household, as did the queen regent of Spain and the khedive of Egypt, and the czar of all the Russias possessed two typewriters, both enameled and gold plated. Just before the turn of the century, a New York firm advertised 1,000 new and used machines for sale or rent (the rental fee totaled $3 per month, including ribbons and repairs). By 1900, the U. S. government began ordering some 10,000 new typewriters a year.

Tradition and protocol inhibited the Department of State from joining in this headlong rush to adopt a new technology. Secretary of State James G. Blaine, the Plumed Knight from Maine, introduced the typewriter into the relatively new State, War, and Navy Building sometime during his second term in office, 1889-1892, more than a decade after Agriculture had acquired its first machine. But through much of the 1890s, State's small staff of clerks seldom typed documents, and the Department even as 1900 approached still viewed the typewriter as "a necessary evil," in historian Tyler Dennett's phrase. (The telephone was similarly viewed with suspicion.)

Tradition-bound critics opposed the use of typewriters on legal and even health grounds. Because the finished product was neither handwritten nor printed, as was customary, laws had to be enacted confirming the legality of typed documents. Some diehards further held that reading typed copy, which they claimed tended to become blurred, harmed one's eyesight, citing as "proof" statistics which showed that more people than ever wore eyeglasses.

The most basic objection to typewriters, however, especially in the diplomatic world, depended on social considerations. Many saw the typed page, unlike messages written out in longhand by the sender, as implicitly discourteous; they were viewed as impersonal and lacking in privacy because a clerk, not the person who signed the message, presumably had to turn out the typed page. Others objected to typed communications because of a perceived implication that the recipient could not read script. In the years around 1900, magazine articles and letters to newspaper editors appeared on both sides of the lively question of whether or not it was polite to use typewriters, and faint echoes of the controversy in the realm of social usage linger to this day.

The National Archives's holdings of Departmental and Foreign Service records, now located at College Park, Maryland, reflect the strength of the longhand tradition in diplomatic correspondence. We can find one instance of the typewriter's early use by State in the special confidential instructions for the wealthy publisher John Hay upon his assignment as ambassador to Great Britain. This document was not prepared until 1897, however. Concerning the U. S. position on the esoteric but then-hot issue of bimetallism, the instruction clearly was for his background use, not to be handed to the Foreign Office. Neatly typed, it is unlike any other in the file of instructions to Embassy London during that period: All of the directives to that post were handwritten in pen and ink until one fine day in August 1898. At that time, the clerks, now including women, made a switch to typing in mid-message, from one ledger page to the next. From then on, the file copies of instructions to the post in London were typed.

The changeover in the Department's copies came at different times for different sets of files. The record of notes to the Spanish embassy in Washington, as an example, took handwritten form until June 1901. Typed copies of instructions to the American Legation at Lima began as late as June 1903. Only by then could the clatter and tap-tap-tap of typewriters be heard in the wide, ornate halls of the Department's imposing building.

Foreign embassies in Washington continued this diplomatic tradition. They addressed by far the majority of their diplomatic notes to the Department of State in script until after the turn of the century. For example, the British embassy by the end of the 1890s occasionally forwarded lengthy enclosures to notes in typed form, but Ambassador Julian Pauncefote, a renowned diplomat of the old school, for years into the twentieth century continued to employ the presumably more courteous handwritten form for the body of his embassy's notes.

A spot check of reporting from posts abroad shows, somewhat surprisingly, that in some instances the Diplomatic and Consular services (they were administratively separate until 1924) led the way in adopting this new technology of typewriters. Until at least 1900, most overseas posts prepared in longhand their despatches, which in those days invariably began, "Sir, I have the honor to report (or to acknowledge, request or enclose), and ended with the chief of mission's or principal officer's signature.

The U. S. Consulate General at Havana, however, is an example of an early user of at least one typewriter: Under longtime consular officer Ramon O. Williams, that office forwarded to Washington typed enclosures to despatches as early as December 1888. The American legation at Madrid obtained a typewriter in the spring of 1893, but confined its use at first to preparing enclosures and copies for the Department of handwritten notes sent to the Spanish foreign ministry. But in September 1894, Minister Hannis Taylor, until recently an Alabama lawyer, signed Madrid's first typed despatch to the Department. The mission used its new machine extensively thereafter.

Minister Charles Denby's legation at distant Peking also began using the machine only for enclosures. After initiating that practice in mid-1897, the legation sent its first typescript despatch in May 1898. The mission at Lima showed similar timing in beginning to type its reports, forwarding its first such formal message to Washington in late 1897.

Following along at a later date, in October 1901, the U. S. legation at Vienna, headed by Minister Robert S. McCormick of the Chicago McCormicks, abruptly abandoned the longhand previously used and changed over to the typed page. (That initial lengthy report strangely enough had several handwritten enclosures, perhaps indicating that the post's lone typewriter was tied up in preparing the body of the despatch.) The consular office at Belgrade used a typewriter sparingly for enclosures beginning in mid-1900, but did not send its initial typed despatch until considerably later, in December 1905.

One enterprising officer solved the equipment problem by taking his own typewriter to his post of assignment. In 1898, when named as consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, Luther Ellsworth of Cleveland immediately changed the practice of reporting in longhand which had been in use continuously since the post's opening back in 1823. He typed his first despatch and all subsequent messages on what appears from the typeface to be the same machine he used to correspond with the Department earlier from Ohio about his appointment.

The above several samples reflect generally the years when some overseas posts began using a machine for the preparation of reports, but many of the smaller ones had to wait well into the new century. The U. S. consulate at Belize acquired a typewriter only in 1906, and the principal officer restricted its use to preparing an occasional long enclosure to a despatch. Reports from the consulate at Gibraltar include no typed pages at all in the National Archives's records through 1906. One deduces that Gibraltar, like many of the numerous small consular posts after the turn of the century, had to wait years to receive its first typewriter, the newest, most sophisticated, and technologically advanced equipment of the day.

Sophisticated? Technologically advanced? Definitely yes, in the context of the times and many Americans, if not necessarily the Department of State's leadership, saw the typewriter as such even then. In late 1897, the New York Times twisted the British lion's tail, chiding the "Britishers" for frequently being behind the times. An editorial writer used as an example the widespread use of in America of "typewriting machines," whereas "as yet comparatively few of them are in Great Britain." By the time the British adopt the innovation, predicted the Times, "in America typewriters will already have been superseded by something better."

And so they have been. A century after the editorialist's comment -- leaving aside the question of whether Britain has trouble keeping up technologically -- typewriters have been replaced by computers in the business world, in academia, and in most of the government sector. Who, pray tell, receives or sends a communication turned out on a typewriter these days? I say "most of the government sector" above. I'm inclined not to count the Department of State in the forefront of innovation, and I wonder how far behind State is in adopting, and adapting to, this new wave of technology. Is history repeating itself in that regard?

Typewriter c. 1909
[Typewriter c. 1909]
Typewriter c. 1970
[Typewriter c. 1970]



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