It was a chance discovery, an accidental encounter in the dark and dusty corner of a non-nondescript building that revealed a fascinating story from long ago and far away.
To explain: On a recent Sunday afternoon, I accompanied a friend visiting from Denver on an antique crawl in Pasadena.
He has been a collector of this and that for years. At one point, he had a large and impressive collection of fine china used on dining cars in the golden age of railroading. He could spot a tea cup from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe across a crowded room.
To me, most of the stuff you see in antique stores are trinkets and geegaws that may have had some meaning to the original owners but are so much junk now. Who wants an ashtray that says “Cleveland, 1953?” Or a commemorative shot glass from the Inyo County Fair?
This particular trip didn’t reveal anything that would elicit gasps of amazement on “Antique Roadshow.” No Tiffany lamps. No Benjamin Franklin’s hat. No Hopalong Cassidy’s six-shooter.
Indeed, we were about to exit the store when something caught my eye. In the back of a stall the dealers used to display their wares was a typewriter sitting on a threadbare needlepoint chair.
The machine was old, 1920s or 30s I estimated, although it turned out to be older than that. Like many everyday objects made long ago it managed to make the utilitarian look elegant. It even appeared to be in working order.
I don’t collect typewriters or anything else for that matter. In fact, I haven’t even seen or touched a typewriter in some 30 years. They were unceremoniously swept into obscurity at the dawn of the computer age.
But I did use a typewriter for the first part of my career and it seemed to symbolize the profession that I embraced many years ago.
In other words, it spoke to me.
Across the top of the paper feed in gold letters were the words “Pittsburgh Visible.” Script located below the keyboard informed us that it was manufactured by the “Pittsburgh Writing Machine Company, Pittsburgh, Penn.”
That sealed the deal for me. My wife is from the Pittsburgh area so she also felt some attachment to this dusty old machine.
Who owned it? Where was it used? How did it get from Pittsburgh to Pasadena? Those are questions that will in all likelihood never be answered. But by doing some research, we were able to learn a lot about the machine and the man who invented it.
It is the story of James Denny Daugherty, born in 1855 and raised in Kittanning, just up the river from Pittsburgh. He was, in the words of one historian, “gifted as a mechanic, and learned in the law, but his inborn eloquence and poetic temperament are traits which have endeared him to his friends, and made him a terror to his adversaries.”
As a young man, his schooling was cut short by the necessity to earn a living to supplement the family income. He worked in a brickyard during the day and recited at night to historian Robert W. Smith, from whom he obtained a basic knowledge of Latin and mathematics. Daugherty was finally able to attend Mount Union College, Ohio, from which he graduated in 1879.
While working as a court stenographer, he bought himself a Sholes and Glidden typewriter and “became remarkably expert upon that comparatively clumsy pioneer machine, and began at once to improve upon it”.
“Even with this slow and crude machine he became able to take testimony without the use of stenographic notes,” according to historical records. “The annoyance of raising the carriage of the machine (the only way you could read what you typed) caused him to work out the idea of a visible writer, and in 1881 he made the first working model of a typewriter with writing in sight. A successful working model made of iron was developed by him in 1883.”
In 1891 he had his idea patented and contracted a firm in Groton, New York, to manufacture 2000 machines.
At first, using the catchphrase “We claim everything in sight,” the Daugherty typewriter proved a commercial success. So much as that in 1894 the company was able to build a factory in Kittanning.
Apart from being the first to provide visible writing, Daugherty’s typewriter had other then-unique features. By loosening two screws on either side of the keyboard, the keyboard and typebasket could be removed and replaced for another typeface.
But the company’s fortunes began to falter in 1897 through the “incompetency” of a manager at the factory. A lot of 2,500 machines were found to be defective and had to be cast into the scrap heap. The humiliation and shame felt by the manager caused him to hang himself.
It was a fatal blow for the company. Agents around the country demanded deliveries at once or contracts would be cancelled. As Daugherty could not get out the orders, the firm was compelled to suspend operations. Later that year the plant and Daugherty’s patents were sold to the Pittsburgh Writing Machine Company, and the new owners renamed the machine the Pittsburgh Visible Typewriter, an example of which I now own.
A lesser man would have disappeared after such a setback. But not Daugherty. Instead, he remained involved with the Pittsburgh company which continued to produce the Daugherty-designed machine until 1908. In 1911, it sold the Daugherty patents to the Union Typewriter Company, a trust that controlled Remington, Smith Premier and other typewriter manufacturers. Soon, those companies incorporated Daugherty’s designs into their products.
Daugherty worked for Union for a short time, then for Underwood where he designed an adding, subtracting and multiplying attachment for their machine.
But he was more than just a tinkerer. He was a lawyer with his own practice. A renown political orator, he was one of the few speakers selected for service in the campaign of soon-to-be President William McKinley with whom Daugherty had a strong personal friendship. When McKinley was assassinated, Daugherty delivered the address at the memorial service.
James Denny Daugherty died in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 14, 1939, aged 83. He was gone but hardly forgotten, even today.
If you’ll look at the top left hand side of your computer keyboard, you’ll see the letters E,R,T and Y side by side. They represent the last four letters of Daugherty's name.