I think it was Franz Liszt who, as a young composer, walked into a music publisher’s and asked to show his music. He then produced a sheet of music with a plaintive Lied (song).
After studying it for a few moments, the publisher said, “young man, you have lots of talent but your music is too sad. Write me something happier and I promise to publish it.”
Liszt returned a couple of weeks later with another Lied, this one titled, “Walking to my grave with a smile on my face.”
I love this apocryphal anecdote because it reminds me that, just like language, music has an alphabet of its own. And it loves to be shared.
Have you ever wondered how people shared music before Spotify or MP3?
As My Modern Met explains, most composers like to handwrite their sheet music. However, over the years there have been all types of machines invented to help print music. Perhaps one of the coolest is the Keaton Music Typewriter. First patented in 1936, it definitely doesn’t look like an ordinary typewriter. Robert H. Keaton from San Francisco, California created the machine, which has now become something of a rare collector’s item.
The Keaton Music Typewriter
The original patent was for a 14-key typewriter, which was then upgraded to 33 keys in an improved 1953 patent. Marketed in the 1950s and sold for about $255, the machine has a distinct look thanks to its circular keyboard. In creating his design, Keaton was looking to create something that would be able to print characters precisely on a staff and indicate exactly where the next character would be printed to ensure accuracy.
The unique keyboard arrangement was born of a desire to separate two types of characters. It’s an interesting arrangement that gives the Keaton Music Typewriter its distinctive look. In terms of engineering, thanks to a curved meter on the left that Keaton called the Scale Shift Handle and Scale Shift Indicator, it’s easy to control exactly where the notes and characters fall on the page. By moving the handle up or down a notch, the typewriter adjusts to print 1/24 inch in either direction. Moving one notch up or down will cause the character to fall one musical step either way.
Due to the niche nature of the product, it’s unclear if it was a big commercial success. Now, the Keaton Music Typewriter is a beloved collectible and can sometimes be found on eBay as well as other online auctions. Its beautiful design and nostalgic appeal for the pre-digital era certainly make it an invention worthy of rediscovery.
Watch this short demonstration to see the music typewriter in action.
For more details and photos, check out the original post on My Modern Met!