- Historic Sites
Twain, The Patent Poet
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
Mark Twain, surely the most American of great American writers, was, like the country itself, a creature of stupendous contradictions—gentle and tender at any given moment, and in the next possessed of rages so intense they could rattle the bones and shrivel the mind of anyone at whom they were directed; almost hysterically prudish when his wife and daughters were concerned, yet driven time and again to exercises (though not for publication) that were both prurient and scatalogical; contemptuous of money and headlong in pursuit of it; scornful of gentility and through much of his life terrified that he did not possess it.
These and other paradoxes colored his work and infected his life, but perhaps none more thoroughly defined Twain than the infatuation this man of literature displayed for the machine civilization that was the very antithesis of art. FIe loved technology and all its gadgets, and for those responsible he reserved a special admiration. “An inventor,” he once wrote, “is a poet—a true poet—and nothing in any degree less than a high order of poet.” In A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889) he has his protagonist declare: “I knew that a country without a patent office was just a crab and couldn’t travel any way but sideways or backways.” And since he was a man true to his convictions—whatever they happened to be at any given moment—it should not be surprising to learn that Twain himself entered the murky world of patent poesy. He did so three times, and once with a modest success that only encouraged him in a course that would nearly wreck his life.
Twain’s first attempt to startle the world with his inventive genius came on September 1,1871, when he applied to the U.S. Patent Office for a patent on something he described as “an adjustable and detachable strap for vests, pantaloons or other garments requiring straps.” Unfortunately, before his application could be approved, another inventor came along with the same idea, and the question of who came first had to be adjudicated. In a letter to the Patent Office substantiating his claim, Twain noted that “For four or five years I turned the idea of such a contrivance over in my mind at times, without a successful conclusion; but on the 13th of August last, as I lay in bed, I thought of it again, & then I said I would ease my mind and invent that strap before I got up—probably the only prophecy I ever made that was worth its face.” With the letter, Twain included some rough drawings which he claimed had been done on the spot (they are shown above): ”… these details seem a little trivial, I grant,” he apologized, “but they are history & therefore in some degree respect-worthy.…” Perhaps on the grounds of superior literary style, the Patent Office decided in his favor and he was issued Patent No. 121,992. Nothing ever came of it.
Undiscouraged that he was never able to sell the manufacturing rights to his adjustable garment strap to anyone, Twain entered the inventive lists for the second time in 1873. This time, the “great humanizing and civilizing invention,” as he informed his brother Orion, was a self-pasting scrapbook that did away with the messiness of mucilage and library paste. Each page of the scrapbook (above) had narrow strips of adhesive already attached, and these needed only to be moistened with a wet cloth or sponge before sticking in recipes, invitations, book reviews, or whatever. For this he received Patent No. 140,245 on June 24,1873—without contest. Not only that, but the firm of Slote & Woodman went on to manufacture and sell twenty-five thousand copies of the thing. On August 18,1885, Twain did it again, receiving Patent No. 324,535 for a grotesquely complicated game designed to teach children to remember significant dates in history. Apparently the children of his time resisted the notion of memorizing dates, as children usually do, and the game died a-borning.
Twain’s personal dabbling in the mysteries of technological progress had at least cost him very little—and the scrapbook had even brought him a comfortable sum. But in 1880 he met another inventor who was to cost him a great deal: James W. Paige, who for several years had been working on an automatic typesetting machine which in its final form would have no less than eighteen thousand individual parts. Here, in Twain’s mind, the world of letters and the world of machines came together gloriously—and he could make a fortune! “He is a poet,” he said of Paige, predictably enough, “a most great and genuine poet, whose sublime creations are written in steel. He is the Shakespeare of mechanical invention.” And stubbornly, over the next fifteen years, in face of the fact that the machine rarely ran for more than a few minutes at a time without breakdown, that it was in almost constant need of overhauling, tuning, adjustment, and “perfecting,” that Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine was well on its way to conquering the market for automatic typesetters, Twain sank one small fortune after another into Paige’s invention. His final investment carne to more than $180,000, with no return whatever. By 1895 he was bankrupt, $100,000 in debt, and off, at the age of sixty, on a lecture tour that drained him even as it helped to repay his creditors.
Twain survived this ordeal, and went on to complete some of his best work before his death in 1910. His nemesis, the typesetting machine, also survived. The first and only model now reposes in the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford, Connecticut, testimony to the dilemmas of an artist’s contradictions.