Exploring Mark Twain's connection to ergonomics - the master storyteller's use of ergonomics to compose his final works.

Ergonomist and a Scholar

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. Mark Twain’s connection to ergonomics certainly piqued my interest. In particular, it is remarkable to witness the continuous discovery of items associated with Twain even after his death in 1910. Just last year, publishers released a children’s book that utilized a recently unearthed manuscript. Lost manuscripts and notebooks seem to pop up every so often. The man had a deep love for writing and dedicated numerous hours every day to it throughout most of his 75-year life. During the creation of Life on the Mississippi, he even pushed himself to write for 20 hours a day continuously for 6 weeks. Additionally, his absent-minded nature led to frequent misplacement of his belongings. His extensive travels around the world for many years have created circumstances in which numerous lost treasures are still waiting to be discovered.

Unveiling Mark Twain’s Writing Rituals

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). However he 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 credited as the first American author to submit a typed manuscript—1883’s Life on the Mississippi—he achieved this by dictating his hand-written draft onto a wax cylinder and subsequently hiring 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.

Twain’s Acceptance of Ergonomic Solutions

I have asked workers countless times to try using their opposite side more frequently in order to alleviate fatigue in their dominant extremity caused by repetitive motions. 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’s Investment in Ergonomics

Mark Twain invested heavily in an ergonomic invention. He invested $300,000 ($8 million in today’s money) in something called the Paige Compositor. The machine was intended to replace a team of 8 workers for setting type in a newspaper; however, its precision fell short of the newspaper’s requirements. Before perfecting this invention, the Linotype machine emerged in 1884 and rendered the Paige Compositor obsolete. Two machines were constructed in total, with Cornell University disposing of theirs during a scrap drive in World War II. The surviving machine is now exhibited at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. This failed invention played a part in Twain filing for bankruptcy at the age of 59. Twain possessed a fascination for inventions but seemed to encounter misfortune when it came to his investment choices. 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.

Twain’s Autobiographies & Embarrassment

Publishers released his most recent autobiographies, consisting of three large volumes, over 100 years after his death. He deliberately chose this timing to ensure he could express his thoughts and experiences with utmost honesty. 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 openly embraced the idea, he harbored a fear of ostracism and wished to shield his friends and family from ridicule. 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.

Mark Twain’s Connection to Ergonomics & the Obstacles He Had to Overcome

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.

Mark Twain’s Connection to Ergonomics Through Personal Tragedy

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. At the age of 11, Twain witnessed his father being 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 perished in a tragic steamboat accident while on the job at the age of 20. Twain held himself responsible as he had secured that job for Henry. Twain reflects on the likelihood that both his father and Henry’s deaths resulted from accidental painkiller overdoses. Twain’s sickly son Langdon passed away at 19 months, and Twain blamed himself because he had taken his son on an early morning carriage ride where Langdon’s blanket slipped off. Twain failed to notice this until the ride had concluded, resulting in his son’s legs becoming 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.

Poor Financial Decisions and Tragedy

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 yearned for the arrival of death and lamented the instances where unexpected circumstances spared his life. He defied expectations by surviving into childhood despite being born prematurely and frail. Before learning to swim, he narrowly escaped drowning on nine occasions. Amusingly he remarked on being mistaken for a cat. He also faced 3 brushes with death due to various diseases that claimed the lives of children in his village. Through sheer luck, he narrowly evaded a tragic accident involving his brother’s steamboat, having been relocated just a day earlier. Twain’s life is replete with stories and circumstances where he remarkably eluded 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.

Twain Humanized Victims of Slavery

Over Twain’s life of travel, writings and reflections; he became one of the greatest humanitarians. He was also 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 undoubtedly exposed the masses to the atrocities committed against the African race and sounded the alarm for social justice in its time. 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.”

His Personal Investment in Education

Twain provided financial assistance for the education of African Americans. In 1885, Twain published Huck Finn in New York. During that year, he privately wrote a letter to a law school dean expressing his sentiments, stating, “I do not believe I would willingly assist a white student who seeks charity from a stranger, but my stance differs when it comes to individuals of other races.” 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. “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 Mizzou. Twain strongly believed in education for our society.  “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.”

Importance of Ergonomics Education

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. They also perform appropriate warm up exercises using 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.

The Heritage We Share

I feel a deep honor to share a similar heritage as Mark Twain. I also feel privileged to 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. This year, our family has established a Mark Twain sanctuary in Hannibal, MO, which we rent out on Airbnb and has been cherished by more than 20 families. 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.