Milwaukee gave birth to several important improvements to modern society, including the typewriter.
Ever since buying a 1930s Underwood at a second hand store in 1978, I’ve been interested in antique typewriters. My Underwood was in fine working order and I used it to write all my assignments on the way to earning a journalism degree from Marquette University. In a bit of chronologic symmetry, the invention of the typewriter predated my Underwood by 50 years, and the Underwood was 50 years old when I graduated.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend the celebration of the first commercially successful typewriter developed in Milwaukee by Christopher Latham Sholes and several associates in the 1860s and 70s. Among other innovations in his design, Sholes and his team developed the now ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard to minimize the jamming of keys.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the Milwaukee Public Museum’s 1873 Sholes & Glidden ‘Type Writer’ as a historic mechanical engineering landmark at a ceremony in the Milwaukee Public Museum last Thursday. That early typewriter is part of the museum’s extensive Carl Dietz Collection of nearly 1,000 typewriters.
Several speakers including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, noted the coincidence of the ceremony taking place the day following the death of Steve Jobs. Jobs’ creations, he noted, impact today’s lifestyle much like Sholes’ typewriter impacted the previous century. Dozens of proud descendants of Mathias Schwalbach, a machinist who was part of Sholes’ team, were on hand for the ceremony and enjoyed typewriter sheet cake afterwards.
A plaque on the southwest corner of State and Fourth Streets has long commemorated the Sholes’ creation, which was developed kitty-corner from this plaque.
Taking advantage of my first journey to the Milwaukee Public Museum in more than a decade I stayed after the ceremony and visited two favorite old exhibits: the Crow Indian Bison Hunt Diorama and the iconic Streets of Old Milwaukee. With a little help from a museum staffer, I was able to locate the hidden button that shakes the rattle snake’s tail in the bison hunt exhibit. The Streets of Old Milwaukee was pretty much the same as I remember except for the addition of an Allen-Bradley display (as a gesture to major benefactor Jane Bradley Pettit I imagine) and the disappearance (as far as I could tell) of Milwaukee’s most famous madam, Miss Kitty Williams, from the window of her brothel, victim of political correctness, I imagine.
There was, however, the display of what some believe is the first gasoline powered automobile in the United States. Milwaukee cooper Gottlieb Schoemer is generally ignored by historians who credit the Duryea brothers with the first gasoline powered automobile in the United States. But Schoemer claimed his “Motor Wagon” first ran in 1892, one year before the Duryea automobile. Schoemer built his vehicle on the south side near what is now 8th and Scott Streets.
Milwaukee’s south side also served as the birthplace of what is often credited as the world’s 1st commercially successful outboard motor courtesy of Ole Evinrude. The Norwegian immigrant did his testing on the Kinnickinnic River not far from today’s Horny Goat Brewing Company. In truth, another inventor, Detroit’s Carl Waterman, beat him to the punch by a couple years, but Ole’s 1907 design did have several unique features that are still used on outboards today and of course Evinrude’s company thrived long after Waterman’s company faded away.
And I am proud to have my very own very Milwaukee invention – Schlabst beer. Known as Milwaukee’s Black & Tan, Schlabst is the hybrid of two of Milwaukee’s most famous beers - Schlitz and Pabst. Schlitz goes on the bottom and Pabst on top – otherwise it would be a Pitz! Schlabst was created at the Highbury Pub on August 30, 2008 when it was first poured at my direction by Robyn Vinje.
Schlabst now has its own Twitter account with hundreds of followers, has been featured in Milwaukee Magazine and has been poured in more than a dozen states coast to coast. Several events have celebrated Schlabst including the Schlabst blind taste test at AJ Bombers, Schlabst Fest at the Highbury and Schlabst Art Underground at the original Pabst Brewery. Schlabst has been featured in Leff’s Lucky Town promos and is a key ingredient in the award winning Schlabst Grilled Cheese, created by Milwaukee foodie Bryan Simkus. There has also been an extensive line of Schlabst merchandise including Schlabstick Lip Balm and Schlabst Snuggies, T-Shirts and pint glasses.
Milwaukee should be proud of all its “firsts”. Perhaps the long ago booted slogans of “Great Place on a Great Lake” and “Genuine American” could be replaced by “Birthplace of Machines and Beers That Changed the Way We Live” – or more concisely – “Milwaukee: First in Gears & Beers”.