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L'Incroyable Alphabetaire Typographique

The latest to-do-or-not-to-do idea in our house is to build an un-manufactured index typewriter. For most people, this idea may sound ridicule, trop difficile, or even insensé! For me, it means it's time to faire des recherches!

First, I turned to good old Michael Adler (1997). The objective: identify which un-commercialized typewriters were index, and have enough information available to build one with the assistance of a 3D printer, lathe, and possibly other machines my husband is interested in finding an excuse to purchase for his garage workshop. After flipping to the Directory of Inventions Never Manufactured (p. 85), my eyes drifted to the Alphabétaire Typographique. All that is written is that this machine had a letter index (excellent, an index machine), was made by Cabanel, who was from France, and that the patent was granted in 1875.

Printing on paper already existed; like many inventors, Cabanal was trying to improve upon the ideas of the day to create something even better. This gives some credence to the idea that almost nothing invented is really new. Upon review of the timeline of machines invented to print letters on paper, Wikipedia (Typewriter, 2018) indicates that the first typing invention was as early as 1575, a full 300 years earlier than the Alphabétaire. 1714, 150 years earlier than the Alphabétaire, is when humanity would be introduced to what we recognize today as the first typewriter, invented by Henry Mill. Fast forward to 1875, the Third French Republic was just established (French Constitutional Laws of 1875, 2018), and the invention of what is recognized to be the first commercially successful practical typewriter, the Sholes & Glidden, had recently been released to the market. This index machine was in good company!

I went to Google Translate to translate the name of the invention, and discovered that it simply means Typographic Alphabet, an appropriate name for such a machine, but also generic enough to get mounds of Google hits for unrelated subject matter. After several tries, I came across the first promising hit, a catalog of French patents (or "brevets" in French) from 1875 (M. le Ministre de l'Agriculture et du Commerce, 1876). From page 826, I discovered the patent number: 107558.

Translation: Machine to make compositions on report paper using alphabets of typographic characters. - Cabanel, pg 127.

So, I scrolled to page 127, and found what appears to be the address of the inventor.

Translation: 15 year patent, May 14; Cabanel, 1 New St. Paul Street, Nîmes (Gard). - Machine called "l'alphabétaire", intended to make compositions on report paper by means of alphabets of typographic characters.

This little bit of information can help with further identifying Cabanel, the man, the inventor.

Nimes, France is shown in red, with Montpellier, France just to the west.

Back to, and we find that Cabanel is also the name of a famous French artist, some of whose works are located at one of the most famous museums in Paris, Musée d'Orsay. Alexandre Cabanel lived from 1823-1889 (Alexandre Cabanel, 2018). He would have been around 52 years old at the time of this patent. We know Alexandre Cabanel was still active at that time since 1875 is when a small replica of Cabanel's most famous work, The Birth of Venus, was painted and signed by Cabanel (but not necessarily painted by him). This was also two years before his third Grande Médaille d'Honneur at the Salon of 1878. Alexandre Cabanel was born in Montpellier, France, only about 60 km away from where our Cabanel may have lived. Although the time period and location are correct, it is not likely that an artist who devoted his life to the academic art form would have developed a patent for printing letters on a page.

Translation: D. Augusto Cabanel, resident of Montpellier, (France), for a rescue device in case of fire called "Pirámide de salvamento" (Pyramid of rescue).

Back to searching the Internet, my father-in-law found another patent for something quite different, but also invented by a Cabanel, this time a D. Augusto Cabanel, also from Montpellier, France (Ministerio de Fomento, 1886, p. 8). Here, the location is right. The timing is right given that this invention was patented only 11 years after our Alphabétaire. This time, we even have another inventor! However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Cabanel was not an unpopular name. Unfortunately, after an exhaustive search, no more information about this Augusto Cabanel could be found.

Back to the original patent, another hit on M. Cabanel's name (Office of the Commissioners of Patents, 1875) reveals that this machine was originally intended for accounts in ledgers, rather than for the common household use. This information could be useful in deciphering how the machine looked and was to be used.

Heading over to the bulletin of the New York public library where the original reference was stored (New York Public Library, 1913), we find another similar entry with a reference to the original patent book for France! The entry also suggests that Cabanel's initials may be A. M., but looking at the patent itself, the "A." could have been a mis-translated "à", and the "M." could be the abbreviation for the French title "Monsieur" rather than an initial.

Translation: Cabanel, A. M. French patent no. 107558, 1875, for a machine called the l'alphabétaire intended to make compositions on report paper by means of alphabets of typographic characters. (In: Description of machines and processes for which patents have been taken, new series, v. 15, part 2, Industrial Arts, Typography and Lithography, page 14.)

So, I looked up the referenced book (L'Imprimerie Nationale, 1879), et voila, the patent!

Translation: Machine called l'alphabétaire, intended to make compositions on report paper by means of alphabets of typographic characters. Patent, dated May 14, 1875, to Mr. Cabanel, page 14.

As per the first lines in the patent: "L'alphabétaire est une machine qui permettra à la litho graphie de faire avec un alphabet de chaque caractère les mêmes planches ou compositions que peuvent faire les meilleures imprimeries. Ce système unira définitivement la typographie à la litho graphie et fera prendre des proportions très-considérables à la typo-lithographie." Translation: "The alphabetaire is a machine that will allow the lithography to make, with an alphabet of each character, the same boards or compositions that can be done by the best printing companies. This system will definitively unite typography with lithography and will make very considerable proportions to typo-lithography."

Harris & Ewing (Photographer). (1905-1945). "Government Printing Office Presses". Washington, D. C. Library of Congress,

Typography is both "letterpress printing" and "the style, arrangement, or appearance of typeset matter"(Typography, n.d.), whereas lithography is "the process of printing from a plane surface (such as a smooth stone or metal plate) on which the image to be printed is ink-receptive and the blank area ink-repellent" (Lithography, n.d.). This invention was intended to make the laborious work of both processes simpler in one machine. With this, it sounds as if the lithographer/ typographer could use this index machine to both line up the letters and print out the result in one hit, and much more quickly than one could using the modern machines of 1875 designed to do that work. After reviewing how this machine was supposed to work, I scrolled down to the page holding the figures.

Unfortunately, the digitized copy appears to have cut off some of the pictures in the patent, meaning it will be nearly impossible to build this machine without going to the library in New York to copy the full page. What does this mean? Unless we make a trip to New York sometime soon, we must flip to the next model and try again. C'est la vie!



Adler, M. (1997). Chapter 5, Directory of Inventions Never Manufactured in Antique Typewriters From Creed to QWERTY (pp. 85-127). Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

Alexandre Cabanel. (2018, July 11). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from

French Constitutional Laws of 1875. (2018, November 27). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from

Lithography. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from

Ministerio de Fomento. (1886, September 16). Boletín Oficial de la Propiedad Intelectual é Industrial, no. 2. Retrieved from Google Books December 8, 2018:

M. le Ministre de l'Agriculture et du Commerce. (1876). Catalogue des Brevets d'Invention. Retrieved from Google Books, from the collection of the New York Public Library, digitized June 23, 2010:

Office of the Commissioners of Patents. (1875, October 1). The Commissioners of Patents' Journal, no. 2269. London, England. Retrieved from Google Books, from the Stanford University Libraries collection:

Typewriter. (2018, November 28). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from

Typography. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from


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