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Caroline Habluetzel | The telautograph, scenes of handwriting and the changing cultural appreciation of physical authenticity

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This is the first study of the telautograph, a device that transmitted the movement of a writing hand over telegraph lines to a remote fountain pen that simultaneously replicated the author’s moving hand. I argue that the telautograph created a unique niche within the media landscape of the late 19th century: it provided a novel and instantaneous way to communicate long-distance and was thus unprecedented as a writing technology. It transmitted handwriting, clearly a familiar and trusted technology and clearly attributable to an individual person. Yet it produced writing in the absence of the writer, thus challenging notions of authenticity and context of origin. In addition, I establish that Elisha Gray’s particular business strategy combined with certain technical short-comings limited the telautograph’s adoption despite unanimously favourable reviews.

Today, handwriting similarly inhabits a borderland in our culture. Its increasingly limited practice is in competition with various forms of typing, yet handwritten documents are generally perceived as more personal and authentic than electronic documents. I propose that the cultural appreciation of handwriting stems from the notion of physical authenticity, the particular physical bond that exists between a writer and a text, a bond that we think is different from the link between a writer and an electronic text. I identify five assumptions on handwriting: (1) handwriting is produced by the body/hand while typewriting is produced by a machine; (2) a handwritten text leads to an individual while a typed text leads to a device; (3) handwriting directly reflects our thoughts while typing leaves doubts in this regard; (4) handwriting cannot be copied while typing creates only copies; (5) handwriting implies presence while typing implies absence. I use these assumptions to explore the historical trajectory of handwriting practices. I thus examine scenes of writing in the 19th century (the telautograph) and 21st century (signing and handwriting practices today) and portray the respective semantics, gestures, and instruments.

After an introductory chapter presenting the most important concepts, chapter two tells the story of Elisha Gray and his vision of an autographic system which would transmit the movement of the writing hand over telegraph lines. It traces the evolution of this vision from plans and drawings and numerous experiments to demonstrations of the device and to the grand exhibition at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. A series of telautograph samples available at the Smithsonian Institution beautifully illustrate the arduous process of an inventor and his technicians from their initial idea through the grinding series of failed experiments to their first working apparatus and on through continuous fine-tuning to a marketable product. In comparison, I discuss the economic potential, limits and, ultimately, failure of the telautograph.

Chapter three provides an overview of the media landscape in the second half of the 19th century. Typewriters appeared on the mass market, the postcard became popular and the telephone started spreading in the business world. In this same era, the telautograph was hailed as “a beautiful invention” and was expected to alter handwriting practices in various fields. And although it eventually found widespread use in banks and train stations, for instance, it apparently never fulfilled its potential as a generally used telecommunications device. The chapter seeks to historically situate the telautograph within its time and explore this discrepancy between potential and actual application in relation to historical, economical and personal aspects of the story of Elisha Gray’s telautograph.

I apply theories of embodied knowledge to the practice of handwriting in general and to the historical scene of writing of the telautograph in particular. Handwriting – as a bodily, yet, learned practice – lies precisely on the intersection between an immediate and an indirect form of embodied knowledge. What exactly, then, changes when the practice of handwriting changes? My starting point is the assumption that the cultural appreciation of handwriting stems from the particular physical bond that exists between a writer and a text, a bond that we think is different from the link between a writer and an electronic text. I formulate five theses that guide my work: (1) handwriting is directly produced by the writer’s body while typewriting is produced by a technological device; (2) a handwritten text is a unique and authentic trace of an individual at a specific moment in time while a typed text is iterable and reproducible and can at best be traced back to a unique device but not to an individual person; (3) when writing by hand, we communicate thoughts, ideas, and representations in a direct, immediate way, while typing leaves lingering doubts about the authenticity of content; (4) reproducing handwriting is forgery but reproducing typewriting is the creation of another original or another copy of something that was always-already a copy; (5) handwriting implies the presence of the author, while typing implies the absence of author and reader.

Authenticity is a key concept in all five theses and in my exploration of handwriting. I focus on authenticity as the evidence of the physical co-presence of text and writer, physical authenticity, as opposed to authenticity that pertains to a text’s faithful representation of the author’s intended meaning (what I call semiotic authenticity). Physical authenticity implies the genuine production of the text by an identifiable person or group of persons at a specific moment in time. It is valued in handwriting as an attribute that reflects a varying degree of physical closeness and immediacy between author and text. Similarly, it is seen as facilitating a certain closeness and immediacy between reader and text. The text’s materiality, for instance, affords many opportunities to express traces of an author’s body.

In concluding, I examine these issues surrounding physical authenticity in the context of another long-distance handwriting device, the more recent LongPen, as used and promoted by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Similar to the telautograph (albeit technically entirely different), the LongPen’s main application is in transmitting signatures. An 1867 source predicted that “the weary process of learning penmanship in schools will be reduced to the acquirement of the art of writing one’s signature” thanks to the newly promoted “type writing machine.” While handwriting and signing appear to have evolved from separate practices, the valuation of the physical bond between the writer and a text or signature seems to derive from common historical and cultural developments. My analysis pays particular attention to recent forms of electronic signing where physical authenticity anew is problematized, thus suggesting that much insight can be gained by looking to the fringes of a prevailing cultural practice in order to learn about its past, present, and future.