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Keyboard Builders' Digest / History

Livermore's Permutation Typograph

A pocket-sized chording typewriter with six keys by Benjamin Livermore – from the 1850s.
Published February 6, 2023
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Marcin Wichary's upcoming book brought this gadget to my attention. I wanted to post about this machine back at the time when I featured Marcin's book, but waiting for permission to use the photos below plus unexpected turns of my life got in the way...

Pic: Benjamin Livermore's Device for hand-printing (source)

Benjamin Livermore's Device for hand-printing (source)

Designed by Benjamin Livermore in the 1830-1850s and patented in 1863, the Permutation Typograph, Pocket Writing Machine, or the Device for hand-printing as the inventor called it, was "arguably, the world's first mechanical mobile text entry device", a small device with only six keys ("finger-pieces").

Pic: (source)

Invented in the 1850s in Hartland, Vermont, this tool could be operated eyes-free, in one's jacket pocket, with one hand. An excerpt from the patent:

“Be it known that I, BENJAMIN LIVERMORE, of Hartland, in the county of Windsor and State of Vermont, have invented a new and Improved Hand-Printing Device or Mechanical Typographer; [...] The object of this invention is to obtain a portable device which may be held in the hand and operated with the greatest facility for printing direct upon paper or other suitable material. To this end the invention consists in the employment or use of a combination-type--that is to say, a type composed of several sections, arranged and combined in such a manner that any one of the sections may be used seperately, and certain parts used combined, in order to form the different letters of the alphabet, as hereafter set forth.”


So in contrast to typewriters typing out letters, Livermore came up with an alphabet based on six base parts, similarly to some LCD characters hundred years later, thus the six moving pieces and keys. According to William A. Buxton, this was one of the three approaches to entering text by striking keys (at least before the 20th century) – the other methods being the classic typewriter style and the "time-multiplexed one-button keyboard" aka telegraph/Morse). Here are Livermore's base elements:


Since the base elements don't interfere, the keys move independently, there are 64 possible combinations (including the zero case, which I'm not sure is possible to type), so plenty of room for an alphabet and extra characters:

Pic: Livermore's alphabet A to Z

Livermore's alphabet A to Z

Most of these letters are straightforward and intuitive, only a handful of them stretches your imagination.

When I tried to find more info on this piece of history, I stumbled upon some really great resources, most notably the Battison Museum's website (Edwin Battison was a protégé of the English/Livermore family, read the whole story here.)

Pic: Benjamin Livermore with his sister, Emily, and her children – with the typograph in the middle (source)

Benjamin Livermore with his sister, Emily, and her children – with the typograph in the middle (source)

Livermore's approach inspired other inventions, alphabets and fonts, especially for the blind and visually impaired.

Finally, if you'd like to try "typing" on the typograph, there's a simulator on the shifthappens site.


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Published on Mon 6th Feb 2023. Featured in KBD #113.


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