Mill Patents the Typewriter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Henry Mill created likely the first machine for printing individual letters and documents. Queen Anne, recognizing the merits of Mill’s innovation, issued a patent guaranteeing his rights to manufacture and sell machines based on his design.

Summary of Event

During the eighteenth century, most literate people communicated by handwriting personal letters. Because printing documents with presses was costly, especially when only one or several copies were needed, businesses relied on handwritten documents to record transactions and accounts and to prepare invoices and receipts. Attorneys mostly wrote legal information in missives and ledgers. People filled out forms by hand. Such practices caused documents to be vulnerable to forgeries Forgery and modifications that benefited criminals trying to deceive victims. Misunderstandings occurred when people were unable to read illegible handwriting. Handwritten documents risked damage if water distorted ink. [kw]Mill Patents the Typewriter (Jan. 7, 1714) [kw]Typewriter, Mill Patents the (Jan. 7, 1714) [kw]Patents the Typewriter, Mill (Jan. 7, 1714) Typewriters [g]England;Jan. 7, 1714: Mill Patents the Typewriter[0450] [c]Inventions;Jan. 7, 1714: Mill Patents the Typewriter[0450] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 7, 1714: Mill Patents the Typewriter[0450] [c]Communications;Jan. 7, 1714: Mill Patents the Typewriter[0450] Mill, Henry Anne, Queen Walpole, Sir Robert

Henry Mill was an engineer who had gained hydraulics, engineering, and mechanics expertise while working on water supply at Norfolk’s Houghton Hall. His employer, influential politician Robert Walpole, may have assisted Mill with his inventions. Mill resided in London, where he was probably aware of the vast array of scientific and technological endeavors of the early eighteenth century. Most early English patents recognized inventions related to practical uses, including tools, mill engines, and dredging machines. On April 12, 1706, Mill received a patent for a spring device that enhanced passengers’ comfort on carriages.

After completing that invention, Mill contemplated a way to mechanize writing Writing;mechanization of to make it more resilient and harder to tamper with. Recognizing the merits of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, Mill wanted to create a smaller device that individuals could use in their shops and homes to produce individual documents affordably. Some sources suggest sixteenth and seventeenth century inventors had devised writing machines Machines;and written communication[written communication] prior to Mill’s work, but most references to such devices describe types of presses; no proof exists of any direct predecessor to the typewriter as such prior to Mill’s innovation.

Mill envisioned a machine that would let people create messages mechanically whenever they wanted instead of being restricted to printers’ schedules. The users of such a device would not have to set type for an entire document before it was printed. Instead, they could create documents on the fly, producing each word as they thought of it, placing letters, numerals, and symbols individually and sequentially on paper until they had composed a complete message. Such a procedure would enable people to consider and change the wording of a document as they wrote. Such editing was difficult to perform with material that was already typeset for printing presses.

Sources reveal little about Mill’s inventive process, but his patent provides some clues. According to the patent, Mill invested money in his writing machine project, devoting time to research. Perhaps Mill investigated printing presses and other inventors’ mechanical creations to determine how his machine should operate. He might have purchased presses and equipment to experiment with possible mechanisms for his machine. Mill probably created several machines, making improvements with each successive device. His machine may have used keys and levers designated for each letter of the alphabet. Mill most likely tested his writing machine on various qualities of paper and parchment.

An early typewriter.

(Library of Congress)

When he was satisfied with his results, Mill petitioned the court for a patent. On January 7, 1714, Queen Anne approved British patent number 395, recognizing Mill’s invention as the first machine to place individual letters on paper. Assuring Mill commercial rights to his invention for fourteen years, the patent noted that Mill’s machine produced individual letters on paper to form words and sentences. The patent mentioned that Mill’s machine might be utilized to create public records and record decrees and legal decisions, because its writing was more durable than handwriting and could not be easily altered or removed by forgers. Mill probably stressed that transcribers using his writing machine could record spoken words more quickly than those who were handwriting them.

Although Mill likely demonstrated his writing machine to patent officials and possibly even to Queen Anne herself, who referred to him as a valued subject, no existing records indicate that he did so. A demonstration would have convinced officials that his machine functioned and proved that it had the potential to be socially useful. In 1714, British patents did not require inventors to submit prototypes or diagrams of their inventions to file in patent records. Inventors did not have to demonstrate that their invention worked or provide enough detail to allow others to build duplicates. As a result, historians lack models and illustrations of Mill’s writing machine. Some scholars question if Mill actually completed a working writing machine. Others, based on patent information and Mill’s engineering skills, believe Mill built a writing machine to submit when he sought a patent but that it did not survive for further inspection. Even though some historians of technology can hypothesize how Mill’s writing machine worked, they agree that there is insufficient evidence to establish how it actually functioned.

According to most sources, Mill probably never commercially produced either of his patented devices for distribution. Despite the benefits Mill’s writing machine promised, most eighteenth century people resisted his invention, considering typed communications impersonal. Because enough printing presses were available and handwritten messages continued to appeal, the public did not have an urgent need for writing machines. Mill may well have made writing machines for his personal use and for court officials, business colleagues, and friends, but no machines are known to have existed. Limited to using supplies available at that time, Mill might have utilized leather and wooden materials that probably rotted or broke, depending on printing demands and humidity and temperature conditions where writing machines were used. As a result, no writing machines may have lasted beyond several years of use.

Starting in 1720, Mill focused on employment as the New River Company engineer and surveyor. A 1769 fire at Mill’s office ruined most of his records and might have burned any writing machines then extant, as well as information concerning their invention and possible manufacture. After Mill died, his estate auctioned his surveying tools and scientific instruments, which might have included a writing machine.


Most historians credit Mill as the typewriter’s original inventor. Various countries claim their own inventors as the first to achieve that distinction, but no patents or proof exist to verify such assertions. Although Mill’s patent is the sole evidence of his accomplishment, the lack of a model of his writing machine does not diminish his contribution to the development of typewriters. Records do not clarify how many eighteenth century inventors were aware of Mill’s patent, but his concept of a mechanical device to perform writing tasks probably significantly influenced others.

Even though the public was uninterested in Mill’s writing machine and it probably was not appropriated for commercial uses, his idea potentially inspired inventors to attempt to develop writing machines with keyboards to enable disabled people to communicate. By 1808, Pellegrino Turri di Castelnuovo built the first known functioning writing machine for the blind countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono. Some inventors experimented with machines to write sheet music.

American John Pratt received an 1866 English patent for the pterotype writing machine. Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soule, and others commercialized typewriter production in the late nineteenth century. The typewriter was certainly well known and well-established by 1897, when it featured prominently in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Because many early typewriters were complicated, users considered them slower than handwriting. Businesses adopted typewriters, and manufacturers enhanced designs to meet specific needs. By 1905, approximately twenty-five hundred U.S. patents protected typewriter designs and supplies. Typewriters offered women new employment opportunities and some financial autonomy. They aided literacy efforts and foreshadowed the development of word processing with computers.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adler, Michael H. The Writing Machine. London: Allen & Unwin, 1973. A chapter discusses early writing machines and various inventors’ assertions that each was the first person to make a typewriter. Includes the text of Mill’s writing machine patent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashton, John. Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne: Taken from Original Sources. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. Reveals attitudes toward science and technology in early eighteenth century England, listing patents granted, including a description of Mill’s first patent for a transportation spring.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bliven, Bruce, Jr. The Wonderful Writing Machine. New York: Random House, 1954. Comments on inventors’ claims to have invented the first writing machine, citing reasons to credit Mill as the actual pioneer and mentioning other eighteenth century inventors interested in similar devices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregg, Edward. Queen Anne. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Emphasizes Queen Anne’s role as a strong leader capable of independently making decisions, such as issuing patents and encouraging invention, contrary to many biographers’ depictions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kishlansky, Mark. A Monarchy Transformed: Britain, 1603-1714. Vol. 6 in The Penguin History of Britain. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Provides contextual information, particularly in a chapter focusing on Queen Anne, regarding the period of English history during which Mill engaged in his inventive activities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kittler, Friedrich. Grammophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. A follow-up to Kittler’s earlier Discourse Networks 1800/1900, this cultural history continues his investigation of various mechanical devices for recording information and how each device defined and affected the culture in which it was used.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linoff, Victor M., ed. The Typewriter: An Illustrated History. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2000. Describes inventions inspired by Mill and early typewriter inventors, including a facsimile of the October, 1923, Typewriter Topics, featuring historical information and advertisements for typewriters patented from the early nineteenth through the twentieth century.

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Categories: History