Arthur Conan Doyle wrote ‘A Case of Identity’ (IDEN) in 1891; it is a story of Mary Sutherland, a middle class typist, whose lover, Hosmer Angel has disappeared without a trace, leaving her at the altar on their wedding day. All she has to show for their relationship is a handful of typewritten letters that Sherlock Holmes uses to solve the mystery. The typewriter (the object) is both the villain and the key to the story. Recently, I have been looking into the typewriter and its cultural status in the 1890s. Research has shown to me that being a tool for villainy is not surprising: at this point in history the typewriter was not an everyday object and had not been been widely accepted, not even in business, and one of the main reasons for this was that people were nervous of the typewriter’s power to assist in fraud. (Other reasons had to do with accessibility, the lack of consistency in design, the cost of production and training – most typewriters were imported to England from America)
The typewriter’s origins lie in printing press technology, using ink and letters to imprint writing onto parchment (or paper, as it would later become), which was developed to help the blind to be able to write (though you would also have to be educated). The most recognisible model was invented by American, Charles Thurber, but there were many other models created over a number of years throughout the 1870s and became commercalised in the 1880s. The Remington Manufacturing Company (USA) were the biggest exports of the typewriter, but there were over 100 different models of typewriter on the market, each claiming to be the most efficient and best. When typewriters made it over the water to England, businesses were slow to pick up on its benefits. Companies had hundreds of workers who were specially trained in handwriting, a skill that was personal and demonstrated character.
Handwriting was a big deal in the Victorian and Edwardian era, but the typewriter was much faster and as the commercial world began to grow in an unprecedented way, there needed to be a better and more efficient way of dealing with paperwork. Women in particular picked up on the potential benefits of the typewriter and their dexterous, dainty fingers, skilled by hours of piano playing, were seen to be perfectly matched to the typewriter. In fact, advertising for a ‘typewriter’ could mean either a female typist or the machine – the word could mean both or either. By the time Arthur Conan Doyle came to write IDEN, typewriters were being used by some companies, but the cultural importance of handwriting had not been overcome. It was a similar debate to today’s arguments surrounding the ebook and the printed book: the reading experience was seen to be different. Handwriting was seen to reveal character and therefore its mechanical replacement was conversely concealing character: anyone could type a letter of any kind and pretend to be anyone they wanted. It was the catfishing* of Victorian era.
Arthur Conan Doyle took this anxiety and created the most diabolical of catfish story (Warning: spoiler ahead): Hosmer Angel is not real – he is the disguised James Windibank, Mary’s step-father, who is pretending to win her love for his own means. Of course, Sherlock Holmes is not fooled by disguises or by typewritten letters. Holmes knows that even though typewriters are mechanical, they still have individual because no two are the same: he can tell apart the tens of models available; he can see where the keys wear unevenly depending on the kind of work being done and he can tell how often certain letters were used by how strongly each key is pressed. With a sample of Windibank’s typewriting, Holmes deduces Windibank was benefiting from Mary’s inheritance and by fooling her into a relationship with himself (disguised), after promises of love and eternal fidelity, she will never another marry again, leaving her inheritance with him. His awful trick is not punishable by the law, but in a comic scene, Holmes chases Windibank out of 221B Baker St with a whip.
Interestingly, Holmes’ method of typewriting analysis anticipates real typewriting analysis. The story came before the first ever law case using typewriting analysis as evidence, which didn’t happen until 1893 in Levy vs Rust (2 years after IDEN was published). In this real case, a typewriter mechanic pointed out nuances in the typewritten receipts that proved they had not been written on the defendant’s typewriter. Holmes’ method is strikingly similar and there became many trained professionals who could tell the difference between models of typewriter from samples of typewriting and who gave evidence in many consequent legal cases. Doyle may have come up with the idea when he bought his own typewriter in 1891. The typewriter was a suspected villainous tool, but that didn’t stop it from being useful.
*Catfishing is the phenomenon of fabricating an online identity and tricking people into emotional/romantic relationships, usually over a long period of time.