The Brackelsberg syllabic typewriter of 1897 is another hallucinogenic creation from the golden age of writing machine design. This one was never mass-produced, but a working prototype was built, and is pictured above in a photograph from Friedrich Müller's Schreibmaschinen und Schriften-Vervielfältigung (1900).
Ernst Wilhelm Brackelsberg, of the Westphalian town of Ohligs, contributed several interesting designs to typewriter history. His Westphalia (1884) was a linear index machine with differential spacing. It was manufactured, but is very rare today. Shortly after patenting the typewriter illustrated above (German patent no. 100532), he patented another syllabic machine (patent no. 103712), this one using more conventional frontstroke typebars. This design is also illustrated in Müller's book, and like its predecessor, it never reached the market.
The basic idea of the 1897 machine was that the types were arranged on several type sectors that swung up and down, each sector carrying about 30 different types. Four such sectors were located side by side in the machine, and could be operated simultaneously--thus, the typist could type four or more characters at once. In principle, you could type syllable-by-syllable, instead of letter-by-letter. The paper and ribbon were hit against the types by a hammer striking from the rear, as on the Hammond (which used a horizontally swinging sector) and quite a few other early writing machines. The prototype had a keyboard with an imposing 132 keys that controlled four type sectors: one with numerals and punctuation marks, one with an upper-case alphabet and the period, and two with lower-case alphabets and the comma.
It looks like a slow and heavy design, but Brackelsberg boasted that his machine was quiet, its writing was always visible, and the syllabic feature would make it fast and convenient. However, this scheme was impractical. As the manufacturers of the Duplex could have told him, the ability to type more than one character at once turns out to be not a time-saving gift to the typist, but a migraine-inducing nightmare.
So was the Brackelsberg a work of genius, or an absurdity? British typewriter historian G. C. Mares writes judiciously in 1909 about typewriter inventions among "the Teutonic people": "Like the French ... many of their earlier efforts were of little practical value, but it must be urged most strongly that even the smallest effort deserves consideration; for each machine, however insignificant as a whole, might possibly have developed or improved some part, even if but a small one, and so aided in arriving at the present highly developed instruments." Amen.