Peter Mitterhofer - The inventor of the typewriter
Carpenter, gifted tinkerer and inventor
Peter Mitterhofer - The inventor of the typewriter
Peter Mitterhofer - The inventor of the typewriter
Peter Mitterhofer - The inventor of the typewriter
Peter Mitterhofer. On 20th September, 2022, he would have been 200 years old – a good enough reason to devote a few informative lines to the talented inventor from Partschins and written with the instrument that originated in his workshop. With the invention of the typewriter, Peter Mitterhofer laid the foundations for the modern computer keyboard and thus had a pivotal influence on the (working) world of today. Throughout of his eventful life he came up with ideas that in some cases were only brought to full fruition many decades later. Ideas that all too often were met by incomprehension and rejection from his fellow men. Peter Mitterhofer was one in a thousand, a visionary, a man of many talents, a carpenter, musician and handyman. Above all, he was a pioneer of the typewriter. He had to wait a long time for the recognition that he deserved. Too long.
Happy Birthday, Peter!

Ahead of his time
The development of the typewriter is among the most interesting chapters in the history of technology. Many creative minds and inventors strove doggedly in days gone by to develop and perfect this unique technical tool. Unfortunately, their hard work and creativity mostly met with ignorance and rejection. A fate that in particular befell the man who today experts rightly describe as the very first typewriter pioneer.
Peter Mitterhofer built his first typewriter in Partschins in 1864. More models followed. Technically sophisticated and thought through down to the very last detail, Peter Mitterhofer’s typewriters were ahead of the times. Even his first models bore all the hallmarks of a “proper” typewriter. For example, the type basket, three-row keyboard and multiple switching had all long been standard with his machines when the Sholes & Glidden typewriter enjoyed its subsequent triumphant progress. And, unlike with the American machines, Mitterhofer’s models already distinguished between upper and lower case and produced “visible type”.
His invention was thus a milestone; however Peter Mitterhofer did not meet with the acclaim that he deserved. Not in his lifetime, when he vainly fought for recognition, and not in the history books, in which he is scarcely mentioned. Only many decades later, long after his death, did science honour his outstanding achievement. And we can’t help but suspect that had Mitterhofer’s typewriters made their way into the right hands at the time, who knows, perhaps today we might be telling quite a different story...

Peter, the carpenter’s son
Peter Mitterhofer was born on 20th September 1822 in Partschins, the eldest of nine children. The place where he was born was known as the Sagschneiderhaus on the Töll bridge, which in those days also contained a sawmill. After finishing his schooling, Peter joined his father as an apprentice joiner. Later he learned carpentry. At an early age it was clear that Peter was blessed with great skill and ingenuity. Since he also liked to sing and play music, but had insufficient funds, he set about using his manual skills to build his own musical instruments: a zither, a guitar, a three-stringed raffele and his own invention, the Hölzerne Glachter (wooden laughter), a kind of xylophone made from wood, that produced “laughing sounds”. Incidentally, this instrument is what give him the nickname “Peter mit dem hölzernen Glachter” (Peter with the Wooden Laughter).

From “wooden laughter” to the typewriter?
The Hölzerne Glachter invented by Peter was a small, easily portable piano with keys and connecting levers, whose little hammers hit small, well-tuned wooden plates. It is easy to suppose that this musical instrument, whose construction shares similar features, might have inspired the design of the typewriter.

Peter, the carpenter
After several years working for his father, at the age of 26 Peter went out into the world. As the custom required in the carpentry trade, he took to the road as a journeyman to expand his knowledge in different workshops far away from home. His journey took him to Vienna, Germany, Switzerland, France and the Balkan countries. Alongside his work as a joiner and carpenter, during this time he also found the opportunity to develop his artistic talents. With his home-made instruments he appeared as a singer, musician and ventriloquist, earning an extra income in the process.

Peter, the entertainer
We do not know exactly when Peter Mitterhofer returned to Partschins. It is a fact, however, that he continued to practice his musical and artistic skills in his home village. He appeared in inns and invited the public to evening entertainments where he entertained his audiences with singing, whistling and ventriloquism. He also tried his hand as a poet. In his Schnaderhüpfeln – cheerfully mocking little verses sung off the cuff – he repeatedly pulled the villagers’ legs and mischievously and ironically declaimed against the insularity of society.

Peter, the maverick
With his idiosyncratic views and statements that were sometimes critical of society, Peter Mitterhofer did not go down well with everyone. In the village he was considered to be an oddball who, many people felt, whiled away the time with senseless tinkering. Above all, the awkward independent thinker, who was not slow to share his views, was a thorn in the side of the priest and the mayor. That's why it is not surprising that in the course of his life Peter Mitterhofer was often in trouble with the village authorities. Once he even spent several weeks in jail.

Peter, the inventor
In 1862, the now 40-year-old Peter married carpenter's daughter Marie Steidl and moved with her to her parents’ house, the Zimmermannshaus im Obergarten (carpenter's house in Obergarten) in Partschins. It was at this time that he began to mull over the idea of building a device that would make the process of writing easier. From then on, Peter Mitterhofer spent many days and nights translating his plans into action. First with passion, and later obsessively, from 1864 until 1870 he worked doggedly on his designs, neglected his work as a carpenter and spared no effort or sacrifice to turn his idea of a fully functioning typewriter into reality.

The road to Vienna
Twice in his life – in 1866 and 1869 – Peter Mitterhofer made a pilgrimage to Vienna, to present his invention to the Emperor. To transport his typewriter models 3 and 5, he turned a barrow wheel into a carrying frame for his back, to which he attached a crate, also built himself. With a total weight of 50 kg on his back and a large helping of enthusiasm, Peter Mitterhofer twice undertook the 650 km journey. On foot. He had an acquaintance in Vienna write a petition and was actually allowed to present his invention at Court in person.

Bitter disappointment
Peter Mitterhofer returned full of hope from his first visit to Vienna in 1866, with a favourable report and an imperial grant of 200 guilders. Pleased with the acknowledgement of his work, he set about enthusiastically perfecting his typewriter. When in 1869 he returned to present his fifth model to the imperial advisers in Vienna, Peter experienced the disappointment of his life. “We do not anticipate any practical application,” was the sobering conclusion of the experts. For the purchase price of 150 guilders, Peter Mitterhofer left model number 5 at the imperial court, where it ended up as an exhibit in a collection of curious inventions.

The final years
Resigned, Peter Mitterhofer returned to Partschins. His hopes of continuing to develop or even mass produce his typewriter had been dashed. Peter Mitterhofer stopped pursuing new ideas and from then on worked as a farmer. However, his inventiveness had not entirely come to a standstill. To make the work around the home easier for his sick wife, in his final years of life he invented a wooden washing machine. Peter Mitterhofer died a solitary recluse in Partschins in 1893.

Insult to injury
“The others who learned from him harvested the fruits of his talent” – this line, which is engraved in German on Peter Mitterhofer’s headstone in Partschins, sums up his tragic fate as an inventor. Four years after Peter Mitterhofer had resignedly forsworn his passion for the typewriter, the Remington company, at that time still a weapons manufacturer, began mass producing its “Sholes & Glidden” – also known as the Remington No. 1 – in the United States. The typewriter was a best-seller.

Belated credit
With the simplest tools and without outside help, Peter Mitterhofer built five typewriter models over a period of about five years. In 2006 a further experimental model made from wood was identified, which experts have unequivocally attributed to the inventor from Partschins. Today we know that the fact that Peter Mitterhofer’s typewriters did not attract any attention at the time proved to be a momentous misjudgement. Only in 1911, when, by chance, three of his models were found in the attic of his home in Partschins, was the spotlight shone on Peter Mitterhofer’s work. And finally the experts recognised the true value of his “tinkering”.
Model 1 – “Vienna”

In 1864, Peter Mitterhofer developed his first typewriter in Partschins, the Vienna model. With this unfinished first attempt, which Mitterhofer himself described as “a failure”, he had, in reality, achieved pioneering work. We can say this because even his first model demonstrates design features that only appeared decades later on other typewriters.
As a trained joiner, Peter Mitterhofer did, of course, make his first prototypes from wood – only the type basket was made of metal – and furnished it with suspended oscillating levers, a three-row keyboard and multi-stage switching. The keyboard consists of 30 keys: 25 capital letters, 3 punctuation marks, 1 space bar and 1 backspace key. This machine did not have any number keys. The layout of the individual keys – stepped and in three rows, with the function keys in the middle – leads one to assume that Peter Mitterhofer designed his model for typing with two hands.
The characters deserve particular attention. Painstakingly, Mitterhofer reproduced the shape of the individual letters from tiny needle tips and then attached them to the little wooden hammers. The resulting needle letters pierce the paper from below creating a dotted-effect type, similar to Braille.

Today, Mitterhofer's first model is kept in the Technical Museum in Vienna. A replica of the model can be seen in the Typewriter Museum in Partschins.
Model 2 – “Dresden”

Not a year had passed before Peter Mitterhofer built his second typewriter. This time, too, it was a needle-type machine, largely made of wood and a little smaller than the first model. His tireless enthusiasm and the desire to perfect his invention resulted in a fully functioning typewriter whose design is strongly reminiscent of its predecessor, but which features a range of significant functional improvements.
For example, the paper can now be easily clamped into the frame, and an adjustable margin stop triggers a bell sound when the end of the line is reached. In addition, Mitterhofer furnished his model with function keys for locking the type bars, short and long-term locking of the return pawls and space and double-step keys.
However, probably the most important innovation was the “visible type”. This was achieved by having a backing device inlaid with felt, which was located directly underneath the paper. As soon as the needle letters perforated the paper, they hit the ink-soaked felt. The ink adhered to the paper and the type became legible.

The Dresden model is today located in the Technical Collections of the city of Dresden. It was discovered by chance in 1911 in the attic of Mitterhofer’s house in Partschins and adventurously found its way initially to the typewriter collection of the Wanderer Works in Chemnitz and later to the Technical Museum in Dresden, where it even remained unharmed by the bombing raids of the Second World War.
Model 3 – 1866

In December 1866 Peter Mitterhofer completed his third model. Sadly, this machine has been missing since 1923, which is why it has only been possible to reconstruct its design and features using letters and records from that time.
It is known that this model was also made of wood. It could only produce capital letters and characters. The third model probably had a three-stage keyboard with a total of 36 keys. And unlike with his first two models with needle-type letters, Mitterhofer now used letterpress printing characters. For the first time, a roller was used to hold the paper.
With this third machine in his luggage, at the end of 1866 Peter Mitterhofer set out on foot to Vienna, to request financial support from Emperor Franz Joseph I. In order to perfect his typewriter, he needed, among other things, a set of printing characters and this was expensive. The Emperor rewarded his “tireless efforts” with a grant of 200 guilders.

The location of this third model is unknown today. It has simply disappeared in the mists of time.
Model 4 – “Merano Model”

Back from Vienna, Peter Mitterhofer lost no time in translating his new ideas into reality. His fourth model was a type printing typewriter, which could not only type capital letters but also lower case letters and numbers. And for the first time Mitterhofer used a new material: in place of wood, he now used metal.
The fourth model was made primarily in the metal workshop of Matthias Bernhard in Partschins and looks very similar to today’s typewriter models.
The keyboard consists of 39 keys; in the type basket there are 72 type bars in two rows – shorter ones in the inner circle and longer ones in the outer circle. This meant that all bars were able to reach the centre of the basket and/or the striking point underneath the platen. A shift key makes it possible to alternate the operation of the keys.

Mitterhofer’s fourth model is currently to be found in Merano’s Municipal Museum in Palais Mamming.
Model 5 – “Vienna Model”

Peter Mitterhofer hoped that his fifth model would be his masterpiece. Encouraged by the support of the Emperor in Vienna, he worked day and night on his second metal typewriter and for the first time equipped it with a full keyboard.
82 keys, arranged in a seven-row keyboard, were connected to the 82 type bars in the type basket via rods and intermediate levers. For inking the type, Mitterhofer had the ingenious idea of using thin printing ink. After each strike of the space bar a ring of bristles collected some of the ink and moved a little further along each time a letter was struck. This principle enabled the letters to be inked evenly. Furthermore, the spiral movement of the platen roller replaced the previous line feed mechanism. At the end of the line there was now an automatic line feed.
Full of optimism and drive, at the end of 1869 Peter Mitterhofer walked for a second time to Vienna, in order to present his fifth model to the experts in the Imperial Court again. The technical experts at the court evaluated the machine in itself positively but did not recognise the value of the ground-breaking invention.
Peter Mitterhofer received 150 guilders.

His model no. 5 ended up in the repository of the Polytechnic Institute.
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