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Hansen Writing Ball: The first commercially-produced typewriter is now a valuable collectible

Ian Harvey
Photo Credit  Eremeev - CC BY-SA 4.0

The modern typewriter has gone through many changes since its invention in 1865 by Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen, who at the time also served as the head of Copenhagen’s Royal Institute for the Deaf-Mutes. His product, the “skrivekugle” in Danish, or the Hansen Writing Ball as it was known outside Denmark, eventually became the world’s first typewriter that went on to be commercially manufactured. It went into production in 1870.

The Hansen ball had fifty-two keys arranged on what looked like half of a ball with a flat bottom. The spring-loaded keys protruded from the ball and worked the same as pistons. Malling-Hansen came up with the design by experimenting with porcelain models until he was satisfied with the key placement, which was fast and easy to use.

The keyboard of the writing ball

The keyboard of the writing ball

The Danish inventor had the most frequently-used letters placed where fingers would commonly be positioned to hold a pen. He put consonants on the right side of the ball and vowels on the left. When designing the key placement,  Hansen used a pianist’s ability to touch certain keys at high speed as an example. The ribbon was made from carbonized paper.

Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1890

Early typewriter models concealed the paper, so the document could not be seen until it was complete. The paper was placed on a cylinder, and an electromagnetic battery moved the paper as the user typed. Malling-Hansen’s 1874 model used a flat mechanical paper frame instead of a cylinder but still incorporated the electromagnetic battery to move the paper.

Model from 1878

Model from 1878

By 1875, the battery was discontinued in favor of a mechanical escapement, and a downward curved paper frame replaced the flat frame. At this time a space bar was added, as well as line space. More modification included paragraph and intended line tabs, a bell to indicate a line’s end, and a one-touch carriage return. The entire mechanism was made from brass and fit into a wooden presentation box, with a carrying handle to make it easy to transport.

It has been stated that Malling-Hansen designed the apparatus with the intention of helping blind people write, but according to his own writings, his motivation was speed. He created the machine to make letter and document writing faster than what could be completed by a pen in hand.

He did make a writing ball which incorporated Braille onto the keys, but not until 1878. At the time, the only way to have each type bar carved with the individual letters was done thanks to copperplate engravers who were employed in the foundries that made letters for printing press; an art lost when mass production replaced many hand-crafted items.

Hansen Writing Ball in Technischen Sammlungen Dresden Photo Credit  Eremeev – CC BY-SA 4.0

Hansen Writing Ball in Technischen Sammlungen Dresden Photo Credit  Eremeev – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Hansen Ball was displayed at the Industrial Exhibition in Stockholm, Sweden in 1866 and the Paris Exhibition in 1878, where Malling-Hansen received both the gold and silver medals. The inventor also took the machine to Vienna in 1873 and received the First Prize. Across the ocean, the writing ball was exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition, where it won a gold medal.

In 1877, another typewriter was invented by Sholes and Glidden, and further refined by James Densmore. The Remington 1 was mass produced and distributed in the United States by the Remington factory.  The Remington 1 took the form of the more common models, with a flat keyboard using the upstrike method. It was Sholes who introduced the QWERTY keyboard, on which the most commonly used letters were placed at a distance from each other.

A sample from a letter written by Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1872 to his brother Jørgen on the writing ball

A sample from a letter written by Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1872 to his brother Jørgen on the writing ball

Although his machine was superior to the Remington, Malling-Hansen was unable to compete with mass production; he turned to the study of growth in children and education reform. His last order for writing balls was canceled upon his death in 1890.

Read another story from us: John Callcott Horsley: the designer of the first Christmas card

It is believed that 180 of the Hansen Writing Balls were made and, of those, only four remain in private collections. Thirty more are off the market and can be found in museums around the world. In the most recent private sale, a writing ball, completely original with a serial number of 97, sold for $123,000; it is considered among the world’s most expensive antique typewriters.