Getting in Touch With My Past: The Typewriter Museum

I have an unusual last name. I know this because for my entire life people have been unable to spell it, even when I spell it for them, and I nearly always do. I went to Disneyland with my parents and we visited a booth selling framed copies of family crests, thinking it would be a fun thing to hang on the wall. Sholes was in the book, but the booth operator could not find it in the computer to print. He told us he’d never seen that happen in 10 years. Long story short — there aren’t many Sholeses in the world.

A couple of years back I’d been told by my father that one of our distant ancestors invented the QWERTY keyboard for the typewriter. It was a cool tidbit, but I didn’t think much more about it. Then, last year, I read a viral tweet from a guy who’d run across an odd little museum in Spain. I told my friend who lives in Barcelona that next time I was in town we had to check it out — he agreed.

The Museu de la Tècnica de l’Empordà is down a side street off the main square in Figueres. We strolled over there after visiting the Dali museum, the common tourist attraction in the city. We’d called a day ahead of time to make sure someone would be there — the museum website said it was open only 3 hours a day, so I wanted to be sure. Walking in, we saw an assortment of curiosities, from original Vespas to an 1800s automobile to old gas pumps. Two typewriters sat on the main display by the door. We paid the older gentleman at the desk our 3 Euro and he told us to go to the third floor for the ‘tour’.

The two of us rode up in a small elevator, and it opened out into the scene we’d read about. Typewriters everywhere. Rooms full of them. We were immediately greeted by the proprietress Margarita, who was giving a tour to a Spanish family. My friend translated for me, because she did not speak any English. She took us through the origin story of the typewriter, from its early days through the 20th century.

Original Sholes & Glidden, circa 1874

When we reached the first Sholes prototype at the museum, Margarita explained how it worked — it was foot powered and the paper was propelled along the top of the machine with dual rollers, while the arms swung from beneath into the ink roll. This model was built prior to functional refinements by the Remington company, which led to the creation of the modern typewriter with the Sholes keyboard. Early Sholes & Glidden machines were beautifully painted to appeal to a better class of customer, since the price tag was high for the day.

After she explained the history of the machine on display, I stopped her to show her my driver’s license, explaining that I was a Sholes. Margarita lit up, and immediately held out her hand to me. She told me (via my friend’s translation) that she would show me books after the tour about my ancestor, and the story of his inventions. It was an emotional moment, hearing this from someone who had dedicated her life to collecting these machines.

The museum is incredible — not only for the size of the collection, but because you can touch most of the models. Perhaps two-thirds of the typewriters on display were not behind glass. Margarita demonstrated how some of the more esoteric machines worked — Chinese typewriters, music typewriters, single-press typewriters with swing arms to peck out individual letters. She told the story of an old machine they found at a flea market that, when it was cleaned up, turned out to be a typewriter Mussolini had commissioned to give as a gift and was thought lost forever in the War.

“Mussolini” typewriter, made of solid bronze

We made our way down to the second floor full of sewing machines. Margarita told us the history of the sewing machine, from hand-crank devices to the invention of the foot pedal and on through the development of electric motors and battery power. They had hundreds on display, some of them ornately painted and some very clearly designed with function in mind. The sewing machine was an important part of any houeshold in the 19th and 20th century, and the museum’s collection had a huge variety. Singer was the brand most represented, but they also had boutique machines from French and Spanish manufacturers, as well as commercial devices intended to mass produce clothing. They had a device designed to repair pantyhose, which at the time were too expensive to replace often.

The ground floor housed many of the random curiosities the couple had come across during their years of collecting. There was an original Edison Dictaphone along with the shaving machine to “erase” the wax cylinders it inscribed.

The tour was now over, and she introduced us to her husband Pere, the other proprietor of the museum. He walks with a crutch and no longer does tours himself. The origin story of the collection was that the couple owned a transportation company and Pere was — in her words — “very busy” with work until one day he decided to purchase and fix up an old typewriter from a flea market. He was hooked. Since their business took them all over Europe, they began to collect the machines and store them in warehouses they owned in Spain. Over years the collection expanded to fill the museum. Incredibly, Margarita said they had over thirty-five hundred typewriters in storage that were not on display, along with many other items they did not have the room for.

As we marveled at the collection Margarita brought out books to show me, in English, that told the story of my ancestor, Latham-Sholes. My friend spoke with the couple in Spanish, learning about their lives as I read. We left reluctantly, after going back upstairs to take photos of all the typewriters. They had turned some of the lights out, so I was unable to get photos of the sewing machine floor — I felt it rude to inconvenience them any further. The experience was a bit overwhelming — the museum contains so many machines from so many different origins I find it hard to recount all of it now, even after a guided tour.

As I read about my ancestor the narrative of his challenges and the process of his invention emerged. I could relate. As a young entrepreneur, I faced many of the hurdles he did — doubters, repeated failures, bad business partners. In the end he did not become rich — he sold his portion of the patent to Remington for somewhere between six and twelve thousand dollars. He wasn’t particularly well-known for his invention, though his name did feature on a number of machines over the next few decades. The Latham-Sholes contribution to history was the refinement of the typewriter keyboard; his became the optimal layout for keys to avoid the arms jamming during typing. Touching some of his original creations from a hundred and forty years ago, actually typing on a Sholes from the 1800s, was an incredible way to connect with an ancestor. The machines he made still work. His flash of genius solved a small problem in his time, and his legacy is now on billions of electronic devices around the world. I got a window into my past, and I clacked away on it to my heart’s content.

A Sholes, typing on a Sholes

I took a lot of other photos after the tour of the varied and bizarre machines on display. The gallery is here.

Thanks again to Margarita and Pere, my friend Francesc who translated everything, and Marcin Wichary for sharing this discovery with Twitter.