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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

What does 'QWERTY' have to do with Valentine's Day?          By Paul Niemann

[FEB. 8, 2007]  Before we jump into the usual topic of inventions, let's start with a brief history of Valentine's Day. There were actually three different men named Valentine, and all three became martyrs.

Around 270 A.D., the emperor Claudius banned marriage in the Roman empire. His reasoning was that married men were weak soldiers. A Catholic priest named Valentine secretly married the couples that came to him. When Claudius found out, Valentine tried to convert him, but failed, and the emperor had him imprisoned before executing him. While he was in prison, he fell in love with the jailer's blind daughter and cured her. Upon Valentine's departure, he gave her a farewell message that read, "From your Valentine."

Legend has it that the middle of February may have been chosen as Valentine's Day because it was the mating season of birds during the Middle Ages in Europe. I guess that clears up the misconception that Hallmark created the holiday. Actually, Valentine's Day was created in the fifth century A.D. to replace a pagan festival. As for Cupid, he was the son of Venus, the Roman god of love.

Now back to our story.

Two of the most notable Valentine's Day inventions came from Christopher Sholes and George Ferris. Since you know what Ferris invented, we'll start with Sholes.

As you type away on your computer keyboard, have you ever wondered why the letters are arranged that way? Why didn't they just put them in alphabetical order?

Christopher Sholes was born on Valentine's Day in 1819 in Danville, Pa. A two-time Wisconsin state senator who helped found the Republican Party in Wisconsin, Sholes was asked by President Lincoln to become customs collector for the port of Milwaukee before he invented the first practical typewriter in 1872.

In the early days, people used the two-finger "hunt and peck" method that's still popular today. The letters on Sholes' typewriter were originally arranged in alphabetical order, and a typewriter tended to jam when the user typed too fast. To solve this problem, Sholes redesigned the keyboard so that the most common letters were farther away from each other, hoping to slow down the rate of typing and reduce the jamming. The result is the QWERTY design.

A year later, Sholes sold the rights of his typewriter to Remington, which is the same company that makes Remington rifles. He later added the shift key so that people could type lowercase letters as well as uppercase letters.

Mark Twain, who would sometimes invest in new inventions, was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher.

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As for George Ferris and his wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris was born on Valentine's Day in 1859 in Galesburg and moved with his family to Carson City, Nev., at age 5. There was a second person named George Ferris who was born just two weeks after the first one. He also moved to Carson City, but it was much later than when the first George Ferris lived there.

Like Sholes, Ferris was also an engineer. George built the Ferris wheel for sightseeing purposes, and it made its debut at the Chicago Fair in 1893. It was 264 feet tall and had 36 cars, each one seating 40 people. It carried more than a million paying customers during the 19 weeks of the fair, grossing a little more than $725,000.

A duplicate of the wheel was constructed for the 1900 Paris Exposition, while the original wheel was taken down and reconstructed in St. Louis for the 1904 Exposition. Two years later, it was torn down.

Ferris' wife stopped the wheel when it reached the top for the very first time and toasted him. What a great way to celebrate Valentine's Day! What a great way to end this story!

Actually, that didn't happen on Valentine's Day. It happened in June. And this story is not over yet.

A few other interesting events surround Valentine's Day. Two states, Oregon and Arizona, were added to the union on Valentine's Day. Oregon became the 33rd state in 1859, and Arizona became the 48th state in 1912. Two other well-known people were born on Valentine's Day -- Jimmy Hoffa in 1913 and Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson, in 1934.

Now the story is officially over.

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

(Text copied from file received from Paul Niemann)

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