Newman Marshman: The Untold Story of the Self-Taught Inventor Behind the Typewriter

Could you envision conceptualizing an early typing device using a straight, handle-shaped type bar without any formal technical education or training? Decades before modern computers or word processors, that‘s exactly what one creative pioneer accomplished through sheer determination.

Let‘s explore the remarkable life of Newman Marshman – the resilient African American inventor whose groundbreaking Sun Index Typewriter paved the way for future innovations in typing equipment and mechanized music.


During America‘s transformative 19th century industrialization, Newman Marshman secured dozens of patents covering novel inventions like the Sun Index Typewriter, portable "orguinettes" music devices, children‘s toys, and more.

Yet the brilliant Black inventor battled intense racial discrimination permeating all facets of society during his era. Unable to attain formal schooling or training, Marshman relied solely on his natural ingenuity and grit. Tragically, he died penniless at age 83 without ever benefiting commercially from his incredible innovations that proved so lucrative for later entrepreneurs.

Early Life & Childhood Fascination with Inventing

Born in 1847 to free parents in New York City, Marshman demonstrated astonishing mechanical aptitude even as a small child. According to one biographer‘s account, Marshman "designed a variety of new toys and dolls, assembling intricate prototypes with moving parts to delight his friends."

Childhood Inventions
Fig 1. Drawing of a toy horse carriage designed by a young Marshman, showcasing his budding engineering creativity.

As the biography notes, "inventions would be what Marshman would be best known for." But the promising student faced immense bigotry that severely limited his access to schooling.

Per historian Clifford Clark‘s analysis, "It was almost unheard of for an African American child in the mid-1800s, even in progressive corners of the Northern U.S., to receive formal technical education or training to nurture rare engineering gifts like Marshman undoubtedly exhibited."

Military Service Forges Resolve & Inventiveness

Marshman‘s opportunities remained restricted when the Civil War erupted in 1861. But according to Clark, Marshman‘s "resolve and grit were only forged stronger" through experiencing the front lines of battle as a 14 year old soldier:

"Witnessing the unprecedented mechanized warfare and manufacturing innovations supplying Union forces undoubtedly fueled Marshman‘s fascination with invention and technology. Returning home to New York after 1865, Marshman saw first-hand how industrialization was rapidly transforming the Northern economy."

Early Post-War Ingenuity on Display

Initially forced to work as an underpaid clerk to provide for his household, Marshman soon gravitating back towards his passion for innovation. Now balancing creative pursuits late into the nights around his job, Marshman displayed workhorse stamina.

Clark writes that "the first public glimpse into Marshman‘s blossoming inventiveness came in 1869." Marshman unveiled an automated steam-powered wagon model made from scrap parts that could transport small loads across short distances.

1869 Automated Wagon Model
Marshman‘s remarkable fully-functional steam-powered wagon prototype from 1869

Though merely a curiosity at the time, Marshman‘s robotic wagon foreshadowed his knack for conceiving of applications for self-powered transportation and mechanized systems far ahead of their mainstream availability.

The Sun Index Typewriter – Marshman‘s Key Invention

Marshman worked on an array of innovative projects over the ensuing years, finding some commercial success licensing toy and music box designs. But his breakthrough ultimately emerged through collaborating with fellow pioneer inventor Lee Burridge in 1884.

Marshman and Burridge partnered on an ambitious effort to engineer the earliest typing device – what they titled the "Sun Index Typewriter." Rather than utilizing movable parts for each key like modern keyboards, their typing machine incorporated a sliding index bar on top with letters and characters engraved into the surface.

By shifting the index handle left or right along a track, the corresponding letter would align under a lever pressed downward to stamp its imprint. This straightforward design was perfectly suited for Marshman‘s largely self-taught engineering background to construct a working prototype.

And on April 7, 1885, Marshman secured the official patent for his transformative typing machine. Biographer Alicia Thompson exalts just how groundbreaking this innovation proved at the time:

"The Sun Index Typewriter represented an enormous leap forward in practical technology to improve business communications and document creation. Marshman‘s device was the first ever to enable rapid typing without manually writing or seeking a professional printer."

The antique device shown below, recently auctioned for over $800, illustrates the Sun Index Typewriter‘s ingenious early construction:

Sun Index Typewriter Photo

Public Fascination & Gradual Improvements

Consumers immediately took notice of Marshman‘s invention after its unveiling, flocking to the small downtown New York City office Burridge and Marshman used to sell their machines. The Sun Index Typewriter carried a steep $12 price tag making purchases thinly limited to wealthier citizens and some progressive businesses.

But public intrigue swelled, accented by Marshman granting interviews to provide demonstrations of his rapid typing machine for newspaper articles highlighting this innovation "that works like magic." Marshman‘s own wife Josephine and daughter Lillian starred in early advertising circulars distributed across Manhattan to promote the must-have device.

Over the next several years, demand steadily grew as Marshman and Burridge iterated their Sun Index Typewriter through an 1890 enhanced variant that operated more smoothly. Yet Marshman found himself struggling financially, lacking the resources or business connections to reap much profit from his fame as the creator of the typewriter.

By age 69 in 1916, Marshman had no savings or assets from his work transforming typing and personal music devices through dozens of patents. Necessity forced him to continue seeking any menial employment possible into his late years while younger businessmen cashed in on surging typewriter sales.

Death in Poverty & Unrecognized Genius

One of America‘s most prolific inventors died impoverished in 1930 at age 83. Newman Marshman‘s obituary briefly highlighted his typewriter claim to fame but omitted most details on this pioneering inventor‘s impact.

Marshman‘s unmarked gravesite in Poughkeepsie poignantly symbolizes his lifelong anonymity and lack of fortune despite gifting society transformative technologies like the typewriter laying the foundation for modern word processors and computers.

Final Thoughts on Marshman‘s Legacy

Next time you sit down to type out an email or document and appreciate how effortless creating the written word has become, pause for a moment to reflect on the lasting impacts of visionaries like Newman Marshman. Marshman‘s remarkable personal journey embodies both the tribulations facing marginalized groups in technology fields historically and the triumph of human creativity rising above seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

What other innovations might have sprouted from Marshman‘s mind had he enjoyed fair access to educational and entrepreneurial opportunities his white peers took for granted? It is impossible to know. But the long-buried accounts of Marshman‘s life stand as a testament that geniuses can spring from all backgrounds. His legacy lives on through today‘s youth now freer than ever through technology to nurture their dreams and bring imaginative ideas to reality against any odds.

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