malling hansen writing ball 2271IE02 12-12-16.jpg
Malling-Hansen ‘Writing Ball’, the first commercially produced typewriter, sold by Auction Team Breker in Cologne for €70,000 (£63,635), plus 23% buyer’s premium.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

His is not exactly a household name these days but he was responsible for inventing a new type of technology: the Malling-Hansen ‘Writing Ball’. This was the first commercially produced typewriter.

The auctions of Science & Technology at Auction Team Breker in Cologne are a treasure trove for collectors and the sale on November 5 proved to be no exception, including an 1872 example of the reverend’s design.

Malling-Hansen died tragically young in 1890, at which point production of the Writing Ball ceased. In all, some 180 models were manufactured, of which only 35 are thought to survive. Of these, 30 are in museums, leaving only five in private hands. That made the Number 142 that Breker had to offer a highly desirable object. An extra attraction was the original mahogany travelling case.

After a short tussle it was knocked down to a German collector for a lower-estimate €70,000 (£63,635) - plus (23% buyer’s premium) - the top price of the sale.

Malling-Hansen was principal at the Royal Institute for the Deaf and the intention of his machine was to enable his students “to talk through their fingers”. Fifty-four typebars for the letters, numbers and symbols are mounted around a metal hemisphere and are depressed by the fingers of both hands to type.

The system, which Malling-Hansen refined over the years, was remarkably efficient and gained him international recognition. He received numerous medals at the industrial and world exhibitions in Europe and the US.

Probably the most famous owner of such a typewriter was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who never really mastered the technique, however.

Fastest typewriter

According to the International Rasmus Malling-Hansen Society: “The writing ball was not only the first typewriter to be produced and sold in a relatively large quantity, it is also the fastest typewriter ever made, because of the unique construction of the ‘ball’.

“Malling-Hansen was experimenting with the placement of the letters already in 1865 - and he succeeded in finding a placement of the letters that made the writing speed extremely fast. Not many people know that the traditional qwerty-keyboard was designed with the goal of preventing the arms from ‘hanging up’ in each other, and in no way was designed to get the fastest writing speed - on the contrary.”

There is a sad end to the tale, however. “Unfortunately Malling-Hansen's writing ball lost the commercial competition, even though it was clearly a better typewriter, and when Malling-Hansen died in 1890, at the age of only 55, the order he had placed for the production of 100 writing balls at the mechanic Lyngbye in Copenhagen was cancelled, and the writing ball was never made again later.”