The Hansen Writing Ball: A Revolutionary Invention that Paved the Way for Typewriters

In the annals of technological history, certain innovations stand as milestones, shaping the world in ways previously unimaginable. The typewriter, a ubiquitous tool of the 20th century, owes its origins to the pioneering work of Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen, a Danish inventor who, in 1865, set the stage for a revolution in written communication. His creation, the Hansen Writing Ball, often referred to as “skrivekugle” in Danish, marked the advent of the commercially-produced typewriter, forever altering the landscape of written correspondence.

The Hansen Writing Ball made its debut in 1870, boasting a design that was nothing short of groundbreaking. Comprising fifty-two keys arranged on a half-spherical surface with a flat bottom, it resembled a futuristic precursor to the modern keyboard. Each key, ingeniously spring-loaded and piston-like in function, provided a tactile and efficient means of input.

Malling-Hansen dedicated himself to refining the key placement, drawing inspiration from the natural hand position of pen-wielding individuals and the nimble dexterity of pianists.

The keyboard of the writing ball

One notable feature was the positioning of consonants on the right side of the ball and vowels on the left, a layout designed to enhance typing speed. Carbonized paper served as the medium for the ribbon, an innovation that improved the clarity of printed text.

In its early iterations, the typewriter concealed the document until its completion. The paper was mounted on a cylinder, propelled by an electromagnetic battery that synchronized with the user’s typing. In 1874, a transitional model introduced a flat mechanical paper frame while retaining the electromagnetic mechanism. By 1875, the battery gave way to a mechanical escapement, and the flat frame was replaced with a downward-curved one. Additional conveniences such as a space bar, line spacing, paragraph tabs, a line-ending bell, and a one-touch carriage return were incorporated into the design. The 1875 model, crafted from brass and presented in a wooden box with a carrying handle, embodied portability and functionality.

Hansen Writing Ball in Technischen Sammlungen Dresden

While it is often asserted that Malling-Hansen designed the typewriter to assist the visually impaired, his personal journals reveal that his primary motivation was speed. He aimed to accelerate the process of letter and document writing, challenging the dominance of handwritten scripts. In a forward-thinking move, he introduced Braille onto the keys in 1878, catering to a broader spectrum of users.

In the realm of typewriters, competition emerged swiftly. In 1877, the Remington 1 typewriter, initially developed by Christopher Sholes and Samuel Soule, and later refined by James Densmore, was mass-produced and distributed by the Remington factory. This machine introduced a flat keyboard and employed the upstrike method. Sholes also introduced the QWERTY keyboard layout, strategically placing frequently used letters at a distance from one another.

Despite the Hansen Writing Ball’s superior design and functionality, Malling-Hansen struggled to compete with the forces of mass production. Tragically, his last order for writing balls was canceled upon his demise in 1890.

Hansen Writing Ball in Technischen Sammlungen Dresden

Today, the Hansen Writing Ball remains a rare artifact of a bygone era. Only a scant 180 units were ever manufactured, with a mere four residing in private collections. An additional thirty specimens are scattered across museums worldwide. In a testament to its historical significance, a recent private sale saw an original Hansen Writing Ball with the serial number 97 change hands for a staggering $123,000, solidifying its status as one of the most prized and valuable antique typewriters in existence. The Hansen Writing Ball may have been overshadowed by later innovations, but its pioneering spirit and enduring legacy continue to resonate with collectors and enthusiasts alike.

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