I grew up in Hannibal, MO and played in the same woods, bluffs, caves, river, creeks, and islands as our most beloved citizen and the Father of American Literature. While my primary occupation is ergonomics, secondarily I would consider myself a Mark Twain scholar. It’s interesting how Mark Twain items are still being discovered after his death in 1910. A children’s book was published last year based on a recently found manuscript. Lost manuscripts and notebooks seem to pop up every so often. The man loved to write and wrote for hours and hours every day for most of his 75-year life. He once wrote for 20 hours a day for 6 weeks straight when writing Life on the Mississippi. He was also absent-minded and frequently misplaced his belongings. Couple that with the fact that he traveled the world for many years; this creates the circumstances for many lost treasures yet to be found.
I find it intriguing that it was essential for Twain to write using pen and paper. He purchased his first typewriter in 1874 for $125 ($2,800 in today’s money) but returned it a year later saying that it corrupts his morals because it makes him want to swear. He tried to dictate using the Edison Dictaphone, but he couldn’t find his creativity with dictation. While he is given credit to be the first American author to submit a typed manuscript—1883’s Life on the Mississippi—he dictated it onto a wax cylinder using a hand-written draft and then hired a typist. The creativity went from his brain to his handwriting with pen and paper. He wrote until his entire right arm was in severe pain. Then, he would switch to his left hand and write with it for as long as he could tolerate. He was not a left-handed person but forced himself because of his yearning to write. No wonder he had a hot whiskey every night before bedtime! He said he would drink it to prevent toothaches and it worked because he never had a toothache. When I imagine him writing left-handed, I think of ergonomics and how we teach people to be as ambidextrous as possible. I can’t count the number of times I have asked a worker if they would try to use their opposite side more often to help break up the repetition to their dominant extremity that was being fatigued. Many times, we find workers will resist, but not Mark Twain. He wanted to write and even if he felt his right arm was about to fall off, he wasn’t going to let it stop him. I also find it interesting that there seemed to be a feasible ergonomic solution with the typewriter and Edison Dictaphone, but he could not find his creative juices for writing with them. There was something cathartic for him to write with the hand using pen and paper that could not be achieved by speaking into a recorder or striking keys on a typewriter. He made several recordings on the Edison Dictaphone wax cylinders, but they are all lost at present. There are currently no audio recordings of Twain’s voice. This is a shame because the technology was present and he is one of the most legendary storytellers in American history.
Mark Twain also invested heavily in an ergonomic invention. He invested $300,000 ($8 million in today’s money) in something called the Paige Compositor. It was designed to set type for a newspaper that would replace a team of 8 workers; however, the machine was not as precise as a newspaper required. Before this invention could be perfected, the Linotype machine was invented in 1884 and antiquated the Paige Compositor. Only two machines were ever built. Cornell University sent theirs to a scrap drive during World War II. The other machine survives and is displayed at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. This failed invention was one of the reasons that he filed for bankruptcy at the age of 59. Twain was attracted to inventions but seemed to have bad luck with his choice of investments. Twain had a poor mind for commerce and made many blunders when conducting business transactions. Mr. Bell once asked Twain to invest in his newly discovered telephone, but Twain didn’t see the need and turned him down. After bankruptcy, Twain traveled the world for many years lecturing as a humorist. He made a lot of money doing so and paid back all his debts, even though he had no legal obligation to do so. This act led to him receiving a hero’s welcome when he returned to the United States in October of 1900.
His most recent autobiographies (3 large volumes) were published 100+ years after his death. He did this purposefully so that he could be as honest as possible. He figured that after 100 years no one would be alive that could cause embarrassment to his family or friends. While Mark Twain did not fear death and candidly welcomed the idea, he did fear being ostracized and did not want his friends or family to be ridiculed. When he began work on these posthumous autobiographies in 1906, he hired a stenographer. He began his day looking at the newspaper with the stenographer by his side. When he read something that would jog his memory of an interesting life event, then he would tell the story to the stenographer and she would write it down. If he was in the middle of a story and that reminded him of another story, then he would leave the first story and chase after the new one. He was a master storyteller, and this seemed to be the ergonomic solution for him to compose his final works. It also makes for an interesting autobiography. There is no rhyme or reason to the procession. You just read story after story of his life events that jump all around history.
In ergonomics, we closely examine the work station and how it fits with the worker. Twain spent most of his time working in bed during his last decade. Twain and his wife, Livy, purchased the bed on a trip to Venice in 1878 for $200 ($5,000 in today’s money). Carved in dark walnut with twists and turns leading to angels perched high and low across the bed and atop each of its four posts. His only surviving child Clara Clemens talked about how much time Twain had spent in bed. She said this about her father in 1908: “While I have been tiring myself out in an endeavor to rise to the heights as anybody else’s daughter he has just laid in bed and thought things and got out of bed now and then to loaf around on a lecture tour or tramp lazily through Europe. That’s why I’m looking for a really comfortable bed. Genius is the art of taking – to bed.” Clara had a difficult relationship with her dad. She was a professional musician but could not escape the shadow of being Mark Twain’s daughter. At her first concert, the marque outside reading, in small letters: “Clara Clemens” and in large letters: “Daughter of Mark Twain.” She tried to stay away from him and was usually found on a different continent than the one he was on. This is heartbreaking, because she was all he had left at the end of his life in 1910 and she was not there for him. Clara died in 1962 at the age of 88 and had one daughter, Nina. Nina died four years later at the age of 55 and was the last living direct descendant of Twain.
Working in the field of ergonomics in the 21st century, we rarely see a tragedy. Most of the difficulties that we encounter pale in comparison to the difficulties that Mark Twain faced in the 19th century. When Twain was 11 years old, his father was caught in a severe thunderstorm while riding his horse home from work. He developed pneumonia and died one week later. This pushed Twain out of school and into the workforce as a typesetter’s apprentice for the Hannibal Courier Post. His younger brother Henry died while working in a tragic steamboat accident at the age of 20, and Twain blamed himself for this death because he got Henry that job. Twain reflects that both his dad and Henry’s primary cause of death was probably due to an accidental overdose of painkillers. Twain’s sickly son Langdon died at 19 months, and Twain blamed himself because he took his son on an early morning carriage ride and Langdon’s blanket fell off. Twain did not notice it until the ride was over, and his boy’s legs were frozen. Langdon died shortly thereafter. Twain concealed his guilt and shame over this episode until the 2010 published autobiography. His oldest daughter Suzy died when she was 24 in Connecticut and the rest of the family was in Europe. Suzy did not go to Europe because she suffered from seasickness. Twain felt horrible that Suzy died fighting a three-week battle with spinal meningitis without her mom by her side. Suzy and Livy were best friends and loved each other dearly. Twain was in Europe working because of his bankruptcy and he felt his poor financial decisions caused this tragedy. His wife Livy died at the age of 59 in 1904 due to congestive heart failure. His youngest daughter Jean died at the age of 29 in 1909 on Christmas Eve while at Twain’s house. She had an epileptic seizure while taking a bath in the early morning. Twain longed for death to come and regretted the many times his life had been spared through various surprising circumstances. He was born premature, weak and sickly; no one thought he would live into childhood. He drowned 9 times before learning how to swim and afterward said he was confused for a cat. He was on death’s door three times as a youth from different diseases that killed several children in his village. He escaped the tragic accident of his brother’s steamboat, having only been transferred the day before. There are many stories and circumstances in Twain’s life in which he remarkably evaded death by a hair. In 1909 Twain said this: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” His words would ring true one year later when he died on the night of Haley’s comet’s passing.
Over Twain’s life of travel, writings and reflections; he became one of the greatest humanitarians and a powerful advocate for African Americans and other marginalized people. He was the first American author who humanized victims of slavery in his masterpiece book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This book undeniably reveals to the masses the atrocities being committed against the African race and rang a bell for social justice in his age. In his masterpiece, he wrote in 7 different dialects and is the only person who recorded the dialect of the African slave in America. The most popular book in Twain’s lifetime was The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim’s Progress published in 1869. This book gives a revelation as to Twain’s evolution with this text: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” In addition to his writings raising a moral conscience of the American people, he also provided financial assistance for the education of African Americans. Huck Finn was published in New York in 1885 and that same year Twain wrote privately to a law school dean, ”I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs; and we should pay for it.” Twain was also a benefactor and friend of Helen Keller and she said this of Mark Twain: “He treated me not as a freak, but as a person dealing with great difficulties.” While Mark Twain’s highest level of education was the 5th grade, he received honorary doctorates from Yale, Oxford, and our very own University of Missouri. Twain strongly believed in education for our society and said this in 1900: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”
One important aspect of ergonomics is education, whether it be a purely preventative measure in a group class or it is an individual early intervention case. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Twain writes this: “In the stillness and darkness, realization soon began to supplement knowledge. The mere knowledge of a fact is pale; but when you come to realize your fact, it takes on color. It is all the difference between hearing of a man being stabbed to the heart, and seeing it done.” When we educate people, there is a distinct difference between a worker knowing something and realizing it. Most workers know that they should use proper body mechanics and postures, perform appropriate warm up and preventative stretches and exercises, utilize the correct equipment and ask for help when needed. How many times do we see workers that know this, but do not realize it! Once a person feels the pain and suffering of a strain or sprain, then they realize what they had already known. This is why prevention can be so difficult and early intervention is a more realistic approach to ergonomics. This is also why we do a lot of hands-on kinesthetic learning techniques in our worker education.
I feel a deep honor to share a similar heritage as Mark Twain and to also be the founder and chairman of Peak Ergonomics, Inc. We are the largest ergonomics consulting business in Missouri and serve over 50 communities in the Show Me State. Our team works diligently and continuously to develop and deliver comprehensive cutting edge protocols to our clients. Our family has recently created a Mark Twain sanctuary in Hannibal, MO that is rented on Airbnb and has been treasured by over 20 families this year. It is important to me that Mark Twain’s history, along with his impact, continue to spread.
An article by Paul Krewson, Founder & Chairman of Peak Ergonomics, Inc.