Peter Takes on History
December 19, 1871
Mark Twain: Author, Inventor, Advocate and Scrapbooker
We all know Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain,right?
Tom Sawyer (1876), Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and don’t forget “The Innocents Abroad” (1869) his first book and by far his best selling book … but not the book that earned him the most money.
Now, if I asked you to picture Twain I’d wager you see a man with wild white hair and a bushy white mustache in a bright white suit probably smoking a cigar. He was a heavy smoker. Between 20 and 40 cigars a day.
Twain added the signature white suit when, at age 71 he found himself at a congressional hearing on protection of intellectual property. He said the white suits made his appearance more memorable and symbolized his purity of purpose. Mark Twain was a great believer in science, innovation, patents and copyrights. The first official thing Twain’s Connecticut Yankee did in King Arthur’s court was to start a patent office because he knew, “... that a country without … good patent laws was just a crab and couldn't travel anyway but sideways ..."
Twain suffered personally from lax and inconsistent international protections. Though he’d made, what in today’s money would be millions from his writing, he’d have made millions more if foreign publishers weren’t stealing his books. It was a one/two punch. Not only wasn’t he earning royalties on his work, the knock-off editions were cheaper than the books that did pay him royalties!
Mark Twain was a citizen of the Gilded Age. Actually, he coined that phrase. It was a time of innovation. Immense fortunes were made and Twain was caught up in that fever. For all his success as a writer, he dreamed of being an inventor.
Twain never progressed past the fifth grade and took a job working in his older brother‘s print shop as a typesetter. But it became his mission to educate himself. He spent countless hours in public libraries reading. Once his fortune had been made as a writer, he shared the wealth, putting black students through college and even paid for part of Helen Keller’s schooling. Twain combined his love of learning with his ambition to invent and patented The Mark Twain Memory Builder. It was a board game, scored like cribbage, testing the player’s knowledge of history. Honestly, it wasn’t at all successful.
He had better luck with, what he called, “Mark Twain’s Garment Strap.” See, Twain hated suspenders, but 19th Century pants tended to fall down without them. So Twain designed an adjustable elastic band with metal hooks and eyes built in. His idea was that the garment strap could be incorporated to take the slack out of the back of a vest or the waistband of trousers or lady’s dresses.
So he drew it up and applied for a patent. Unfortunately, a gentleman named Henry C. Lockwood of Baltimore filed a similar patent at approximately the same time. To meet the “first to invent” standard, the patent office invited the inventors to submit a document laying out a timetable and describing each man’s intellectual path to the idea. So, the award of the patent basically came down to an essay contest. On December 19th, 1871, as you might guess, Twain won.
It’s interesting to note that, though Twain never profited from his invention before his patent expired, his design was incorporated by Mary Phelps Jacobs who received a patent for the garment she had invented. The bra. And, believe it or not, Mark Twain invented the bra clasp.
Another little-known fact about Mark Twain is, he was an ardent scrapbooker! And he invented a scrapbook with spots of glue printed on each page. Moisten the spots, and like the glue on the flap of an envelope, it sticks. Twain sold 25,000 copies of his scrapbook and earned, in today’s money, more than a million dollars making it his most profitable book, ironically, a book without a single written word.
One more little dose of irony, Twain, as a former printer and lifelong writer became interested in a device invented by a Mr. James Paige. An automated typesetting machine. Twain took his entire fortune, in today’s dollars, nearly $9M, and sunk it into the James Paige Compositor. It was an elegant but complicated machine. The compositor really wowed when it worked but it broke down too often to be practical. As the inventor labored to perfect the finicky mechanism, a German immigrant named Ottmar Mergenthaler debuted his new (and very reliable) Linotype machine. It quickly became the industry standard and Twain's investment was lost. He was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Of course, there is a happy ending. Twain went back to his writing and, in his signature white suit, touring and speaking, eventually earned all his money back … and more.