Discover the Ingenious Typewriter That Prints Musical Notation: The Keaton Music Typewriter Patented in 1936

Noth­ing could seem more ordi­nary to any­one who has grown up with a musi­cian in the house, or tak­en music class­es them­selves, than sheaves of sheet music: quar­ter, half, and whole notes trip­ping through order­ly staffs in chords, arpeg­gios, and melodies. But the process of mak­ing those sheets of music is prob­a­bly far less famil­iar to most of us. Music print­ing his­to­ry, as the site Music Print­ing His­to­ry shows, par­al­lels book print­ing, but uses the tech­nolo­gies dif­fer­ent­ly, from wood­block to lith­o­g­ra­phy to pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tion to per­haps a rarely seen method—the music type­writer.

These inge­nious machines do exact­ly what it sounds like they do, in type­writer-like forms we’ll rec­og­nize and oth­er forms we will not. The first patent for such a device, filed in 1885 by Charles Spiro, shows an object resem­bling a sewing machine.

The next inven­tion, first patent­ed by F. Dogilbert in 1906, resem­bles a mechan­i­cal engrav­ing machine—and indeed, that’s more or less what it was. By con­trast, the 1946 Musicwriter, invent­ed by Cecil S. Effin­ger, looks just like an ear­ly IBM type­writer with a QWERTY key­board. The next ver­sion of the machine was, in fact, a word proces­sor made by IBM.

One inven­tion Music Print­ing His­to­ry does not men­tion was made by a woman, Miss Lil­lian Pavey, in 1961. In the British Pathé news­reel film above, you can see her type­writer in action as she tran­scribes music from a record in real time. In-between the ear­li­est music type­writ­ers, which were not mass-mar­ket­ed to con­sumers, and IBM’s slick, 1988 Musicwriter II, which was, there is the odd Keaton Music Type­writer, first patent­ed with 14 keys in 1936, then again in 1953 in a 33-key ver­sion.

See the Keaton’s clunky oper­a­tion at the top of the post. It looks a lit­tle like a seis­mo­graph or lie detec­tor machine with a semi­cir­cu­lar dou­ble ring of keys (in the 33-key design) in the cen­ter of a met­al car­riage. (See the orig­i­nal patent below.) Con­trary to the Pathé newsman’s claim that no one had suc­ceed­ed in mak­ing a work­ing music type­writer, the Keaton and oth­er mod­els to fol­low in the 40s and 50s sold, though not in large quan­ti­ties, and “made it eas­i­er for pub­lish­ers, edu­ca­tors, and oth­er musi­cians to pro­duce music copies in quan­ti­ty.” Typed sheet music could eas­i­ly be mass-repro­duced by pho­tog­ra­phy.

Nonethe­less, Music Print­ing His­to­ry notes, “com­posers… pre­ferred to write the music out by hand.” The type­writer was main­ly offered as a tool for mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion, not spon­ta­neous com­po­si­tion. Com­put­ers have changed things such that com­posers seem to have the same kinds of debates about hand­writ­ing vers­es dig­i­tal as writ­ers do. But where the type­writer is still a pow­er­ful sym­bol of lit­er­ary art—for some an instru­ment as dis­tinc­tive and wor­thy of study as the gui­tars of rock ‘n’ roll greats—the music type­writer is an odd­i­ty, a mechan­i­cal curios­i­ty no one asso­ciates with cre­ation.

Yet, as “the most vin­tage and won­der­ful­ly imprac­ti­cal thing ever,” as Clas­sic Fm dubs the device, unwieldy machines like the Keaton remain high on the list of cool, quirky inven­tions its most like­ly cus­tomers did­n’t real­ly seem to need.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curi­ous Type­writer, the “Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball”

The Endur­ing Ana­log Under­world of Gramer­cy Type­writer

Con­serve the Sound, an Online Muse­um Pre­serves the Sounds of Past Technologies–from Type­writ­ers, Elec­tric Shavers and Cas­sette Recorders, to Cam­eras & Clas­sic Nin­ten­do

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.