Simanaitis Says

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IT IS A tenuous tie indeed between the world’s greatest consulting detective and our high school’s star quarterback, but typewriters provide the link. Sherlock Holmes used the unicity of typed impressions to resolve “A Case of Identity.” I used my own typewriter expertise, modest though it was, to keep our star quarterback on the roster for an important game.

My primary source for Holmes and the typewriter is The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (non-slipcased edition), edited and with a foreward and notes by Leslie S. Klinger.

Dr. John H. Watson’s chronicle of “A Case of Identity” is perhaps the first mystery solved by recognizing that each typewriter reveals its own unique signature of operation: possibly a misaligned or flawed letter, debris lodged in a symbol or some such.

A typewriter advertisement contemporary to Holmes’ times. Its price was equivalent to around $400 today. This and other illustrations from The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1.

Sherlockian editor Klinger observes that “In 1873, the first commercial typewriter was produced by Philo-Remington from designs of Christopher Lathan Sholes and Carlos Glidden. When typewriters were introduced, shorthand was in common use but there were few trained operators of the new machines. In 1881, the American YWCA foresaw the advantages of training women to use the typewriter and began classes.”

Klinger quotes co-inventor Sholes as saying, “I do feel I have done something for the women who have already had to work so hard. This will enable them more easily to earn a living.” He also cites Rudyard Kipling, in letters from America, referring to the “Typewriter Maiden” who earned her living rather than remain dependent on her parents.

Indeed, in “A Case of Identity,” it was the other way about. Miss Mary Sutherland lived at home where her stepfather and mother profited from her freelance typing—and also from her £100 a year (perhaps $2500 today), interest derived from a modest inheritance.

Her stepfather and mother devise a devilish scheme to keep young Mary single and at home. I won’t ruin the tale, but it involves a young man met at the Gasfitter’s Ball, his wooing of Mary, followed by his no-show at the altar.

A dastardly swain: Above, “At the Gasfitter’s Ball.” Below, “There was no one there.” Both illustrations by Sidney Paget, Strand Magazine, 1891.

Key to unraveling this mystery was in Holmes’ analysis of typewritten letters from Mary’s romancer and from her stepfather: “It is a curious thing,” remarked Holmes, “that a typewriter has really quite as much individuality as a man’s handwriting.”

Of the correspondences in question: “… there is a little slurring over of the ‘e,’ and a slight defect in the tail of the ‘r.’ There are fourteen other characteristics, but those are the more obvious.”


My own tale isn’t quite so dramatic. In high school typing class, the typewriter keys were unlabeled; we all had to learn qwerty and all the rest by heart. Sitting next to me in the back of the class, both of us by choice, was our star quarterback. Alas, he was in danger of losing team status: To paraphrase James Thurber’s description of another football star, though our quarterback was not dumber than an ox, nor was he any smarter.

During our typing speed tests, a typical exchange would begin with, “Psst, where’s that dot with the comma?”

Dot with the comma?? Dot with the comma? “Oh, the semicolon?”

“Yeah, whatever. Which key?”

I’d stop my typing and gather my wits to say, “Middle row, right little finger, no cap.”

He’d lean over to my typewriter and test this.

“Yep,” he’d say, then go back to his own typing. He could sure throw a pass, though. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Bill Urban
    May 21, 2017

    Den, thanks for another smile inducing tale . . . for everyone but Dan Rather.

    Seeing a typewriter at a yard sale, one kid says to another “hey, a keyboard with it’s own printer!”

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