On the Precious Typewriter that Charmed Nietzsche’s Imagination
A Malling-Hansen Writing Ball accompanied (and perhaps enriched) the German philosopher and philologist’s final days.
In his final years, the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, suffered a dramatic deterioration in health, not only mentally, but physically. It’s a terrible paradox that one of the most brilliant philosophers to have lived faced physical decline at precisely the time when his thinking reached its peak maturity. By the 1880s, Nietzsche could read or write only about 20 minutes each day. According to his doctor, his right eye saw only vague and distorted images.
Looking for a solution to improve his productivity, Nietzsche bought a typewriter in 1881. Though the most popular was an American Remington, he decided on a model that today is but a museum rarity. At the time, though, it was the cheapest typewriter of its kind: the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball.
This “writing ball” was designed by Danish inventor, Rasmus Malling-Hansen, in 1865. It was presented to the public during the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. Promoted as a faster alternative to the Remington model, and one with a clearer print quality, it also had far more keys than its American counterpart.
Although Nietzsche embraced the new technology with great enthusiasm, he soon tired of the system. The machine was damaged during one of his trips, and a failed attempt to repair it left it finally unusable. Notwithstanding the above, Nietzsche used the typewriter to complete some 60 texts (the story of the Nietzsches Screibkugel can be read in its entirety here).
Very close to the machine, Nietzsche certainly allows for the impression in this short free-form prose poem:
THE WRITING BALL IS A THING LIKE ME: MADE OF IRON
YET EASILY TWISTED ON JOURNEYS.
PATIENCE AND TACT ARE REQUIRED IN ABUNDANCE
AS WELL AS FINE FINGERS TO USE US.
Perhaps Nietzsche thought of himself as a portable thinker, one who could be mirrored in this 19th century laptop; made of durable materials, both were malleable and ductile. One might add that the similarity between the Writing Ball and philosopher extends even to the idea that but one part out of place was enough to bring the entire mechanism to a halt.
Finally, this website allows internet visitors to write with a simulated Malling-Hansen typewriter. This might give us an idea of the strange writing process Nietzsche experienced in his last days. The letters, never entirely visible, force the writer to blindly trust in ideas. Alas, this is because from a very literal perspective, one cannot see them.
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