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No doubt, diligence ranked among the highest virtues of nineteenth-century historians who went great lengths in prefaces, reviews, memoirs and obituaries to demonstrate how hard they really worked. If this was not enough, private journals and correspondence were turned into means to further affirm historians’ uncompromising work ethics. Their ingenuity in creating ways to display their virtuous industry knew no limits. Even the sense of hearing was used for this purpose. Silence was the traditional symbol of scholarly endeavors, but the late-nineteenth-century technological innovations introduced a new element into the sonic construction of a diligent historian: the tick, tick, ticking of a typewriter.

The silence of archives and private studies stood for the unfaltering concentration of a dedicated historian. The Czech historian Josef Šusta wrote with admiration how seventy historians silently toiled side by side in the Vatican Secret Archives. Respecting the absolute concentration of their fellow great minds, the old pages of manuscripts were turned cautiously, the words with archivists exchanged in a whisper and the steps to go around the reading room taken softly. The deep silence was interrupted only occasionally, Šusta noted, by the noises from outside: the bells of the horses and shouts of their drivers cut through the quietness in the archive. But the noise could not disturb historians whose eyes and mind were fixed in the manuscripts and documents on their desk.

The quiet rustle of a pen on paper and the turning of the pages in a book were the quotidian sounds of historical research. The scholarly soundscape remained unchanged for centuries, but around the turn of the twentieth century a typewriter interrupted the peacefulness of a study and dramatically broadened the notion of how scholarship could sound. The noise of a typewriter never surpassed the silence as the most prominent acoustic symbol of historical research, but it certainly provided a useful alternative to the more traditional soundscape.

Typewriters entered historians’ studies during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Historians embraced the new innovation. The typewriters were expensive, but worth of all the money historians spent on them. Typing gave them an opportunity to get several copies of their text in one go reducing the risks involved in sending the single handwritten copy of a manuscript to a printer and helping in comparing the original copy with the type set proof sheets. Typing was also faster than using a pen and paper. But typing was strictly business for historians. The private correspondence continued to be written by hand for decades. Typed letters were considered mechanical, impersonal, and if for some reason a historian had to type a letter, a long apology to the recipient was attached at the beginning of it.

The American historian Herbert Adams typed a letter to Edward Freeman the first time in July 1882, and uncertain whether his colleague in England was aware of the “Yankee-notion” called typewriter, he gave him a brief introduction to the technicalities of it. But what is more interesting than the description of the mechanism of Adams’ typewriter, is how he used the machine to demonstrate that he was busy at work even in the midst of the summer recess. After a period of collecting sources, Adams wrote, he was once more settled down in his study and “the noise of the type-writer is again heard in the land”. Writing history was given a new distinct sound. Every time Adams’ fingers hit the keys, the characters were pressed on a paper and the historical narrative evolved through a ribbon of ink. The familiar sound of tick, tick, ticking was like music, a harmonious melody that accompanied the historian in his scholarly work. The mechanical music that penetrated through the walls of a historian’s study was like a beating of drums calling attention to his unceasing work.

But the symbolical potential of a typewriter was not limited to the unique sound map it created for a historian’s study. As their popularity grew, historians began to have their pictures taken with a typewriter. There are several photographs of Finnish professors who pose with piles of books and a typewriter at the terrace of their summer residency. Just as for Adams, for his Nordic colleagues in light summer suits, a typewriter helped to create an impression that historians were devoted to research year around.

Historians’ excitement of the new technical device stood in stark contrast with the popular depictions of typewriters. In literature typewriters came to represent the downside of the mechanization and rapid changes of the labor market around the turn of the twentieth century. Offices were increasingly filled with women who, at the bottom of the hierarchy, were like human writing machines, sitting by their typewriters and mechanically typing letters, contracts, and other business documents that the men at the office dictated to them. The offices were filled with young girls like Juliet Appleton in Grant Allen’s The Type-writer Girl (1897) who dreamed of something better, but, as Juliet realized, had no other option than to continue “to click, click, click, like a machine that I was” in the dusty legal office where she was hired as a “type-writer (female)”.

It was not the typewriter itself, but the kind of the work that was done with it that helps to explain why historians perceived typewriters so positively. The historical research remained largely the same even if historians typed their texts. They continued to visit archives and libraries, critically analyze sources, and write scholarly texts. They drafted their own project outlines and designed the questions which they sought answers from the sources. In short, historical research was creative and independent – far from constrains of the office work. Liisi Karttunen perfectly exemplifies how the mode of working defined the way a typewriter was depicted. When she worked as a historian in the Finnish expedition in Rome before the First World War, she lamented the short hours she had for using the shared typewriter of the expedition because the members had to take turns in typing out their manuscripts. A decade later, when Karttunen had been forced to give up research for financial reasons, the typewriter was no longer her ally. She worked as a typewriter at the Finnish Embassy in Rome and the mechanical office work and the lack of creativity and independence drove her in despair. She condemned the long hours she spent typing the letters of the ambassador. The familiar tick, tick, ticking of the typewriter did not sound harmonious anymore. No, the irritating mechanical sound was nothing but pitchy, if not completely out of tune.


Waldstein-Wartenberg Berthold, “Josef Šustas Studienjahre in Rom. Nach dessen Memoiren’, in Römische Historische Mitteilungen, 11 (1969): 127-181.

The Papers of Edward Freeman, The John Rylands Library, Manchester.

The Papers of Liisi Karttunen, The National Archive of Finland, Helsinki.