Need to send a message to a friend 80 miles away? Today, you have a lot of options – whether it’s SMS, email, tweet, Facebook message or Zoom video chat. But in the 1930s the options were much more limited. You could use the phone or write a letter or send a telegram. And that was about it. Close.
In the early 1900s, a new invention called a “telewriter” allowed people to manually write a message that could be translated electronically by a robotic arm, to a destination up to 80 kilometers away.
The user’s pen was connected to two swivel arms, described in a 1910 issue of Popular Science as a pantograph, which calculated exactly where the pen was on paper while the user was typing the message.
These positions were translated into electronic signals that would match an identical pen, controlled by similar pivoting arms at the end of the line of communication, drawing an exact copy of the user’s letters or drawings.
US President Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with the device that he bought more for his home and the White House.
The first mentions about the telewriter appeared in London in 1908 and every few years a new notification appeared in newspapers and magazines about how the invention had been improved.
The October 27, 1911 issue of Mechanical Engineer magazine explained that the telephone would still be useful for most conversations, but the telewriter allowed both accuracy in communication and a written backup of the conversation. The magazine also mentioned how useful it could be in places like factories, where there could be too much noise to make an audio call.
The telewriter was extremely advanced for the 20th century, but a more rudimentary version of the device was actually invented in the early 19th century. It was called Polygraph (not to be confused with the polygraph test, invented in 1921), a handwriting copying machine invented by John Isaac Hawkins and Charles Wilson Peale.
The invention allowed people to write a letter and instantly have a copy of the same letter, to store in their personal files. The letter had to be sent by postal workers, of course, but the idea cut the time required to make a duplicate in half.
Today, there are a lot of ways to use your handwriting on tablets and touch screens of all kinds, sending messages around the world. But the telewriter was extremely ingenious for its time.