Beautiful failed typewriter design: the writing ball

The Malling-Hansen writing ball is a proto-typewriter that, sadly for contemporary aesthetics, lost the battle for typewriting supremacy. This page from the Malling-Hansen Society claims it was superior to the winning design, and they may be correct; but it certainly is more striking (no pun intended) to my eye.
The whole apparatus (the writing ball included) is mounted on a stationary foundation plate in such a way that it can be moved down against a spring, when the writing ball or one of its pistons are forced down by the finger. The foundation plate has an upright anvil under the centre of the ball and directly under the paper frame. When a knob of a type piston is depressed, the paper resting on the anvil, below the same receives an impression. When the finger pressure on the type piston knob is removed, the instrument swings into its normal position. The escapement mechanism moved the paper frame that held the paper on space until the end of the line was reached. By pushing the button on the left in front of the ball all the way down, the carriage was turned concentrically back to the beginning of the line and moved one line to the left.
The most famous of Rasmus Malling-Hansen's inventions: The Writing Ball (via Neatorama)

(Image: Auction Team Köln)


  1. There were actually some office chairs in the 1990s sold with somehow similar keyboards on both arms of the chair. I think it’s called “The Floating Arms Keyboard”. Not exactly balls but one half of the keyboard for each hand.

    — Adnan Vatandas

  2. Stunningly beautiful design. I can see why the other design won out though, this doesn’t look very practical, especially in terms of feeding new sheets of paper and removing typed ones.

    What if it HAD been the dominant design though? For years all our paper would’ve been curved from sitting in the typewriter so long. Perhaps the curved paper thing would’ve carried over to printers the way qwerty carried over to keyboards – imagine a world of printers shaped like spheres, printing half-moon-bent paper…

  3. Beautiful!! But yeah, looks difficult to load and really uncomfortable to type at. Would you have to be standing to type? Maybe we wouldn’t all be so fat if it had won out.

  4. It’s main failing was that it didn’t have lowercase characters. A typist also had to think 90 degrees off true, so he or she could not view what they were typing as they typed it. Sure is beautiful, though.

  5. You also can’t really see what it is you are typing since that portion of the page is obscured by the keypad.

    I would love to see someone typing on this though…

    1. @kmoser

      That Magic Window article is awesome. It’s wild to see interface conventions we now take for granted (“split and glue” ie. “copy and paste”) explained for the first time as brand new concepts. You can actually feel the author picking his way through it, trying to convey these ideas for the first time.

  6. Bizarre. It’ll never replace the old IBM Selectric, which cleverly worked by magic, at least until the old Apple ][+ got that lower-case chip (and the clever 4″ bit of wire that enabled it), and got its 128k memory expansion slot filled with CP/M and WordStar. (Just try to submit your Master’s thesis on pages printed by a dot matrix printer, though…@!#$%!!)

  7. I see some keys have letters with diacritical marks on them — there are an A and O (and possibly a U) with tremas along the left edge of the key array. I guess it’s set up for Danish writing.

    It also looks like the thing has five rows of 8 keys, plus two rows of 6 keys at the top and bottom, making for 52 keys all together.

  8. There’s a museum exhibit at the Leonardo Da Vinci museum of Arts and Science in Milan that is devoted to the history of typewriters. Here is the website for the Museum:

    It is an incredible museum, chock full of an incredible amount of cool stuff. You could easily spend days there… Sadly, we were only there for an afternoon.

  9. I’ve got a spare keyboard and a bunch of keys sitting in my basement right now… I think a keyboard mod is in order.

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