German-born clock maker Mathias Schwalbach played a vital role in perfecting one of the world’s most innovative and iconic pieces of technology. He lived to be 86, but that wasn’t long enough to get widespread public recognition for his contribution.
With eight patents to his credit, Schwalbach helped engineer the first commercially successful typewriter in 1870s Milwaukee, which not only vastly transformed the world of business but also introduced the QWERTY keyboard sitting in front of you.
“Nobody knows about it,” says Michael Schwalbach, Mathias Schwalbach’s great, great grandson. “Even in Milwaukee people don’t know about it.”
The Sholes & Glidden typewriter on which Schwalbach worked has been newly enshrined in the registry of historic mechanical engineering landmarks, one of several such lists that serve as a sort of combination Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, and hall of fame for unsung engineers.
“It’s great for people to finally learn about the things he did,” say Michael Schwalbach, who is still seeking broader acknowledgment for his ancestor’s work on improvements to the sewing machine and tower clocks. “He’s one of those who kind of got swept beneath the carpet.”
There are 256 historic mechanical engineering landmarks designated by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, or ASME, including the 1887 San Francisco cable car power house, the 1871 Boyden hydraulic turbine, New York’s original IRT subway line, and the folding wing that allows fighter planes to be stored aboard aircraft carriers.
“Engineers tend to work in the background. People don’t know much about their accomplishments unless things go wrong,” says Thomas Fehring, a consultant for the energy industry who serves on ASME’s History and Heritage Committee and helped get the Sholes & Glidden typewriter added to the registry.
“It’s important for society in general to recognize the contributions of engineers, and for those role models to be recognized by future generations,” Fehring says. “It’s almost like baseball cards. People look at them and say, ‘There’s Joe DiMaggio and he’s a great ballplayer and I’d like to be him.’ Hopefully people will begin thinking of engineers that way.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, has its own registry of landmarks, including the Erie Canal, the Central Pacific Railroad, Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Terminal.
Things like these “are obviously too big to be put in a museum,” says Bernie Dennis, chairman of the ASCE’s History and Heritage Committee. “They’re out there, everybody sees them, but they may not understand all of the technology and man hours that went into designing and constructing them.”
There is also a registry of electronic engineering milestones, maintained by IEEE, formerly the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. It includes everything from Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity and Volta’s electric battery to the electronic calculator and the Lunar Module.
In a project that began during the Depression and was taken up by the Smithsonian Institution and National Park Service, engineering history is also preserved in the Historic American Engineering Record, or HAER, now housed in the Library of Congress, which preserves for posterity photographs and drawings chronicling engineering breakthroughs that are disappearing.
“Newer buildings come along, rivers are diverted in a different way, and a dam is either left unused or taken out or replaced,” Dennis says.
Like Mathias Schwalbach, many of the people behind these breakthroughs are gone. But there’s a practical purpose to acknowledging them.
“We try to encourage engineers to understand their heritage,” Dennis says. “We want to educate the engineering community itself to understand where they came from and how we got here, and that even 100 years ago engineers were faced with the exact same issues that they face today, in spite of the advances in technology. [It’s still about] figuring out what the problem is and trying to solve that problem, which is fundamental to engineering.”
Back in Milwaukee, pioneers like Mathias Schwalbach and his colleagues and counterparts have been immortalized in another way: Their names have been affixed to conference rooms and office clusters to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs in a startup incubator called the Energy Innovation Center of the Midwest.
“It’s good to know about the people who have come before us,” Fehring says. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Photo: SSPL/Getty Images