Maximilian Ambergis, inventor of the delete button, would be 159 years old this week, if he hadn’t died 75 years ago today. Max, as his friends knew him, or Johnny to his mad half-brother, sadly never lived to see the day that his monumental invention would change the world.
Max had an unassuming childhood. Born in 1848, in the middle of the industrial revolution in Liverpool, he began life as the son of a coal mine owner, one of the new rich of northern England. He had dyslexia, which produced a life-long dread of spelling mistakes. He entered Liverpool Technical College in 1867, eager to learn engineering. Here is his college photograph, from his graduation in 1872.
Max at college
Our story really begins just after his tragic affair and broken engagement to Ms. Fabby Etherington of Newcastle, an event that shattered the young man’s dreams. A myth has grown up which hints at an incorrectly-typed wedding invitation, which caused immense embarrassment. (The story goes that Fabby’s name was spelt “Flabby” on the wedding invites, but this may be a later invention).
To recover from the trauma of his broken heart, Max travelled to California, in search of gold. It is in one of his earlier letters to his mother that he hints at the future ahead of him: “I am desirous of achieving something monumental, something that will wake the world from the torpor of the past and save us from the endless waste-paper basket of lost opportunity. We must erase the past and begin anew.” Biographers have seen in this plaintive missive the beginnings of his life-long search for the delete button in the phrases “erase the past” and “begin anew”. But these early inklings of his future are mere hints.
Returning from his travels, in early 1877, Max set to work with the London Bugle as the new Engineering Correspondent. Combining an infectious enthusiasm with a dogged work ethic, he quickly secured fame across England, particulary for his “Steam Engine of the Week” columns, and his nationalistic “Why England Needs More Steam Than Germany!” exhortation. It is during this time that Max, growing ever-frustrated with his inability to type correctly, suffered his first nervous collapse. Writing from his sick bed, he explained: “Moral collapse and degeneracy is a concomittant of mispelled words. One is conscious of the need to reduce the fallibility of the human hand set to typing. Nay, I would declare, it is the duty of all good Englishmen to boost the national effort in this regard”.
Max’s return to health was disrupted by the untimely death of his father in 1883, whereupon he suffered yet another nervous breakdown. During his long recovery, and upon receipt of his large inheritance, he set to work devising a machine that would solve the spelling diasters he saw all around him. Raising capital on the London stock exchange, he constructed MAX ONE, the machine he felt would be capable of correcting mis-typed words in printing presses.
MAX ONE – The start of a dream
Despite its immense size and complex inner workings, the machine was a commerical and critical disaster. Users complained of the huge cost and lengthy queues for the machine. Weighted down with debt and urgently requiring an income, Max sold the family’s estate, in what he said was: “the erasure of my heart’s pump, gone is my mind’s divine sustenance”.
Max was inspired to start again on his grand project when he received a present of a typewriter from a journalist colleague.
Max’s Typewriter, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.
He realised that what he was looking for was not the ability to prevent mistakes – for that was impossible. But his great and ground-breaking idea was that if only one could undo one’s mistakes after they had been made, that was enough. With this crashing revelation, given only to those few geniuses of exceptional ability, he ferverishly spent months pouring over new typewriter designs, complete with over seventy prototype models. Eventually, he emerged in 1888 with his grandly titled plan for The Maximilian Write-Right Erasable Type Writing Machine With All New Patented Eraser and Undo Button. Calling in many old favours, Max managed to get his detailed plans for the new machine published in the London Bugle. He then set about searching for funding for his new invention, via the Royal Scientific and Geographical Society.
This failed attempt took seven long years. There was general concensus that Max’s proposals were impossible to achieve, both in principle and in practice. One member of the Royal Society commented sourly: “Out of nothing comes nothing; into nothing, something cannot go.” Others saw the path of moral degradation on the horizon (ironic, given Max’s original motivations): “One cannot help but think, that if a man can erase his every mistyped word, then the truth of any document can be severely questioned. On that path lies heresy and blasphemy.”
The Minister for War declared his opinion forcibly: “I daresay the moral equipment of a Nation can be directly measured by the ability of its leaders of Thought to say clearly what they mean, and to mean clearly what they say. One can no more undo the written word than one can put a chick back into an egg.”
Undaunted by the official view, Max went back to California, in 1894, to drum up support for his ideas. The response: “Crazy limey”.
Eventually, Max drifted to Russia, via Alaska, and disappears from history, until he emerges, relatively intact, in 1917 in St. Petersburg, alongside Lenin.
Max, on left, discusses typewriting with Lenin, revolutionary leader and mass murderer. Note the satchel, containing Max Ninety.
Lenin, famously, used Max’s prototype MAX NINETY (for that was the version he had reached by 1917) to type up his infamous “How can you make a revolution without deletions?”, later changed to “How can you make a revolution without executions?” But the intent was clear: here was a revolutionary leader who could see the importance of Max’s invention and its application to the eradication of the capitalist class system.
Max returned to triumph in London in 1921, satisfied of his legacy, but without royalties or an income. He lived the remainder of his life with his sister at her estate in Leeds, from where he wrote his magnum opus: “Delete My Mistakes, Inspire My Spirit”.
It is to Maximilian Ambergis that we owe the greatest invention of the modern age. He is truly one of the greatest minds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.