What I Learned Today: January 7, 1714 Henry Mill & the Typewriter

Typewriters are storytellers.

“If only the walls could talk,” I think as I walk by a Vancouver heritage house that has been meticulously and lovingly returned to its vintage state. So much happens in a building as one generation is replaced by another, each creating a home on the structure of another home.

Even more interesting would be if only typewriters could talk!

Today, I learned that on January 7, 1717, Henry Mill (1683-1771), patented what is now considered the first typewriter.

Henry was a waterworks engineer for the New River Company, which is another great look back into history, but I digress…

Henry Mill submitted two patents during his lifetime. No doubt his 1706 patent for an improvement in coach springs would have been greatly appreciated for those riding in coaches. But it was his 1714 patent that would outlive the inventor and give future inventors a foundation upon which to democratize writing.

Henry Mill’s patent is described as: “Machine for Transcribing Letters….for impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print, very useful in settlements and public records.”

Innovation, in whatever form, takes on a life of its on. What was very useful in settlements and public records, changed the way we transferred information from one person to the other, one generation to the next.

The moral of this story: What we create today may influence the lives of people one hundred years from now.

Something to think about….

“The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me.” Ray Bradbury

79 Replies to “What I Learned Today: January 7, 1714 Henry Mill & the Typewriter”

  1. Wonderful! My parents had an old typewriter in the house not too dissimilar to that Underwood. I remember using it to painstakingly type up a school project.

    ✨🌻🌿🙏🕉🤍♾🕊☯🙏🌿🌻✨

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    1. Oh, those were the days, Graham! Typewriters were the computers of the day – every household had one and sometimes two. I learned on an Underwood typewriter – it made strong fingers. And it WAS painstaking work as I had a great deal of spelling errors (spelling is not my forte). Now, we have spell check and the most wonderful of keys – the delete key!!!

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      1. Ah yes – a slightly different workflow back then, with handwritten drafts before and plenty of correction fluid after (for me at least!)

        ⌨⌨⌨

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    1. Oh Elisabeth – you and I think alike. “The Secrets We Kept,” was the first thing that came to mind. I LOVED that book!! ““Secretary: a person entrusted with a secret. From the Latin secretus, secretum. We all typed, but some of us did more. We spoke no word of the work we did after we covered our typewriters each day. Unlike some of the men, we could keep our secrets.” Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept

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      1. Yes, it’s a great book! I never put the link between the words ‘secretary’ and ‘secret’, but it completely makes sense.

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  2. I love this! It is all too easy to take for granted those things we have in everyday use. I even take for granted being able to type quickly on the QWERTY keyboard, having learned touch-typing somewhat by accident in my teens, long before we all needed to be able to type regularly (how I celebrate that most prescient of accidents!). In fact, the story behind the development of the QWERTY keyboard is fascinating in iteslf – a trial and error approach to reduce the clashing of arms when pressing the keys (about 100 years after Mill I think). So we must give double thanks to Henry Mill for inventing his marvellous machine in the first place, and for providing a platform for further invention – of both the mechanical and dream kinds!! X

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    1. I did not know that QWERTY was developed to reduce the closing of arms when pressing the keys. I can only imagine the inventors of QWERTY spending hours on the detailed work of figuring out where each key should be placed. When I was in my teens, I remember Frances, my mother saying, “if you learn to type, you will always have a job.” At the time, I thought that this comment was gender specific, but Frances had a way of looking far into the future. I recall the eventful day when our office no longer required the use of typists because everyone had been given a laptop computer, designed with the same QWERTY keyboard. I remember visiting the Vice President (who was soon to be retired). All he could do was stare at the laptop and note with laughter, that he should have been more attentive in his high school typing class. And now QWERTY continues to be a part of our computer age. You are so right when you wrote: “both the mechanical and dream kinds.”

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  3. Henry Mill would rejoice if he could see us typing our stories and messages on a computer keyboard. A life without his great invention is unthinkable in our modern world.
    Oh, how I’d wish to be like Ray Bradbury and be able to rush to my laptop every morning because a new idea has hit me!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was thinking the same thing, Peter. I wonder if Ray Bradbury dreamed his ideas. Generally, I looking forward to coffee first thing in the morning! When I read your comments, I had the urge to find out about Ray Bradbury’s typewriter. I found this great story about how he wrote Fahrenheit 451: “He famously wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. His daughters kept interrupting him at home and he couldn’t afford an office. The timed machine cost him 10 cents for every thirty minutes he typed, leading to a total cost of $9.80. Not too bad for a classic work of American fiction!” https://americanwritersmuseum.org/typewriter-tuesday-ray-bradbury/

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I just found a book to add to my 2021 reading list: We’ll Always Have Paris: Stories
        by Ray Bradbury. Sounds like a great read. This is the blurb on Goodreads – “We’ll Always Have Paris, his new collection of stories gathered together for the first time, is a treasure trove of Bradbury gems—eerie and strange, nostalgic and bittersweet, searching and speculative… and a joyous celebration of the lifelong work of a literary legend.”

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Really nice to meet you, Rebecca, via our friend, Annika. I was visiting your beautiful and fascinating blogs last night and I look forward to reading more.

    Your photos and story about typewriters brought back all sorts of memories. Even the move to the electric typewriter was considered a big deal. Wow, regarding ‘the moral of this story…’. I know this will be something to think about….Danke Shoen…….something else we have in common.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am delighted that we have connected in 2021, Erica. Your visit and heartening comments are very much appreciated. I love how serendipity brings people together via community. I remember the first time I touched the keys of an electric typewriter. It felt like my fingers were dancing. And now they dance across a computer keyboard – so many stories that come from the sound of a typewriter. Looking forward to following your posts and the many conversations that await our arrival in 2021.

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    1. Thank you, John, for stopping by and for your heartwarming comment. What I found remarkable about Henry Mill was that he identified, without knowing, a need that would continue to influence our lifetime. One idea that sparked other ideas.

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    1. Isn’t it interesting how we connect “things” with a wider narrative. There is a sense of nostalgia that comes over me when I see typewriters and cameras from the past. I recall my mother, Frances, working on her typewriter creating bulletins for her community on a mimeograph duplicating machine. The black ink was easily spread. I admired (and still do) the dexterity of her finger which allowed her to avoid getting any ink on her hands. Like your mother, my father had the same kind of camera. These past years, I have been going over his collections of slides (they were less costly in those days than photographs) So many stories held in a typewriter. Thank you so much for stopping by and for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Rebecca, maybe you don’t believe me, but we still have a similar tipewriter in the garret! I think now, thanks to your post, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to write down, in this good old way, the many more beautiful sentences I’m reading in Shantaram:) Enjoy your day Martina

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    1. You must keep that typewriter because very few are available – and they come at a high cost. I remember the first time I used an electric typewriter and was amazed by the technology. Today, I use the same QWERTY keyboard on my computer and iPad and am amazed by the technology. We continue to build on what was before. Thank you so much for introducing me to Shantaram! Have a wonderful day, my friend. Sending hugs!

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      1. Your ascertainment “We continue to build on what was before” gives me a good feeling” using or realizing it in the positive way! Many thanks for the precious thoughts!

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    1. When I was looking back to 1714, I was amazed by the history and how much of it was part of my experience, especially as I was trying to master the typewriter in high school. Carbon copies were still in use when I entered the workforce and then there was the liquid correction fluid, changing the ribbon spool, and mastering the QWERTY keyboard. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Su. Very much appreciated.

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      1. I remember those things from school too. And my first job out of school was in a local council; I literally spent my first day typing (with carbon duplicates) dog licenses 🦮🤨

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      2. All my memories in this sector are coming up and you made me now even go back to my article I wrote once about Adriano Olivetti and his 35’OOO employees. He was the famous Italian entrepreneur who built writing machines in the 2Oiest century! Very best regards Martina

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      3. Oh dear Rebecca that’s a pleasure for me! I didn’t know that the Olivetti typewriters were already known in Canada then! Yes he must have been an exceptional person also as far as nature is concerned and for the convictions he had in order to live peacefully together. This kind of people would be very important in our world👍 Big hug Martina

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  6. Wow — I had no idea that the idea for the typewriter went so far back in time! Eye-opening post, Rebecca.

    I have my grandparents’ typewriter from the 1920s in my living room. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. NEVER let that one out of your sight, Dave!!! It is a treasure. Looking back, much to my chagrin I threw out my first typewriter given to my by father. During my college years, I used it to make money typing other student’s term papers. I understand that Ernest Hemingway preferred Royal Quiet de Luxe typewriters. What I didn’t know was that he liked to write standing up so his typewriters were kept on a bookshelf. Orson Welles preferred an Underwood Standard Portable typewriter. And Mark Twain used a Remington No.2. Oh, the backstories that those typewriters could tell!!!! I remember my grandmother at her typewriter creating letters and writing out recipes. So many stories….

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      1. Yes, I definitely won’t part with that huge black Remington. 🙂 But I’ve gotten rid of some stuff over the years that I now wish I had kept, so I understand your regret. 😦

        That’s VERY interesting information about which typewriters famous writers used — and that Hemingway was “a stand-up guy.” 😉

        And nice that you have typewriter-associated memories of your grandmother!

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  7. Seeing that old Underwood gave me a bit of a turn. I have the same one in my study. It tells a very sad story. A dear friend of my dad’s wrote his suicide note on it, addressed to my dad. I wrote the story as “The Story of Henry: Chapter and Verse.”

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  8. When I was growing up we had in our house a typewriter similar to the Underwood you’ve shown.
    I didn’t know that a prototype typewriter was conceived as early as the 1700s.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Neither did I, Steve. I was hoping that there were detailed drawings within the patent documents, but alas we will never know. What was most interesting was that it was a waterworks engineer that introduce the idea. My thought is that there must have been a great deal of recording happening at the New River Company. This photo was taken at Emily Carr House in Victoria when we visited in Fall 2019. So much has happened since then….

      Liked by 2 people

  9. “…to democratize writing” indeed! Rebecca, I really appreciate how you painstakingly and lovingly present what you learned ‘today’ to us. You creatively bring history to life. Who knew the typewriter was that old?! I identify with your adventures on the old typewriters and remember advice like Frances gave you to learn a skill which would always insure work. How far we’ve come…from messy carbon and changing ribbons to correcting tape and white-out to computer and phone keypads. We can communicate around the world with the tips of our fingers. From printing presses in ye old shoppe to our own printers and keypads. I can’t wait to hear all you have to share in 2021! Hugs to you, my friend!

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    1. Your comments had me thinking about how we transition to new ideas. Whether we are early or late adopters we all come to a place where change has occurred, where we accept a new reality. In the last 20 years, we have embraced the Internet, digital cameras, MP3 players, GPS, Electric Cars. In the last 60 years, we had the integrated circuit, optical fibers, shipping containers, CT scanner, microwave ovens and video games. And the 1800s gave us Louis Pasteur and pasteurization, Pierre Michaux and his bicycle, and Levi Strauss and his invention of blue jeans. Looking back into history confirms progress that has been made. From icebox to refrigerators, plows and tractors, the momentum continues. Even now as the race for the Covid 19 vaccine escalates and is being delivered to health care workers, we are seeing progress. And that gives me great comfort. I am delighted that we are sharing 2021 together! Many hugs!

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  10. What a lovely post and thoughts, Rebecca. I realize that it is extremely unlikely that I’ll do anything that is remembered even a few years into the future, it’s a beautiful dream. A lovely thought to try and hold while going to sleep tonight.
    Stay safe and well. Hugs on the wing.

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    1. A very interesting thought – how will we be remembered. You have me thinking!!! Henry Mill’s name was forgotten although his invention took on a life of its own. When I was in high school one of the required readings was Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I confess that I wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect, but one paragraph has stayed with me through the decades to be read and reread: “We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Always enjoy our conversation, Teagan! Sending hugs back on the wing.

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  11. Oh my, Rebecca, did that man ever influence the future! I would guess something similar would have come along at some point, but you have to admire the inspiration that must have seized him and never let go. Thanks for this. 🙂

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    1. As I write this comment using the QWERTY keyboard, I am thankful the Henry Mill saw a need and responded by seeking a viable solution. I think of him in his office painstakingly writing numbers and words, thinking to himself – there has to be a better way than this! I wonder what he would think if he knew exactly how far his invention has come and how many people he inspired to add their inventions upon his foundation. Thank you for your visit and comment – very much appreciated.

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  12. Hi, your post prompted me to ask my mother about a typewriter she owns that has a fascinating history attached to it. I need to do a little more research but, apparently (and this is where the research is required) it was used in ‘the campaigns’ of the first war. My mother rather glibly said ‘probably Gallipoli and places like that’ when I tried to find out which campaigns. It belonged to a gentleman she worked for in the 1960s. His brother had served in the army and was the original owner of the typewriter. More than that I cannot add except she was given the typewriter as a thank you for helping with the paperwork to do with his estate. I would love to find out if it still works. The history, potentially, attached to this object is very sobering!
    This is a great post as it reminds us that despite it’s analogue beginnings it still does exactly as was intended!

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    1. Sarah – this is an extraordinary story that gave me goosebumps as I read your comments. Please do let me know the progress of your research and thank your mother for keeping this treasure that holds the narratives of a difficult and sobering time. I can only imagine the messages, letters, memos that were recorded by this typewriter. As I type on my iPad using the same QWERTY keyboard, your last sentence resonates: “despite it’s analogue beginnings it still does exactly as was intended!” Thank you for adding depth and breadth to this conversation – very much appreciated.

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      1. You’re very welcome. You put so eloquently what I really struggled with! I will certainly look further into its history!

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  13. Fascinating!I love history, because it’s interesting, and because it repeats itself so therefore history is now!
    You serve up the best, Rebecca!

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    1. Those high school classes have served us well, haven’t they? We are still using the QWERTY keyboard. So glad that you enjoyed this post!

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    1. I am so glad that you enjoyed this post. There is so much said about de-cluttering – which is a good thing – but there are some items that need to be kept. I’m saying this after I have recycled and given away the item. But I have them in my memory.

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  14. The most valuable class I took in high school was Typing, Rebecca. It was on an old typewriter, but I learned the keyboard and that has been part of my life ever since. Henry Mill was a genius!

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    1. Typing has become ubiquitous, hasn’t it, Diana. I rarely think of how often I have my fingers on a keyboard and yet, as I look back on this day, I recognize the vitality of Henry Mill’s invention is in my life. Have you notice that the way we think is different when we use a keyboard than when we use cursive writing. I find that typing and thinking is more fluid, more intuitive. Thank you so much for your comments – very much appreciated.

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      1. That’s an interesting comment, Rebecca. My first scribblings about story ideas is always handwritten. I like the ability to write between the lines, in the margins, draw arrows. For some reason that’s more fluid for me. But once that becomes a laptop outline… then the writing changes and flows in a different way. I love how we’re all so different!

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  15. Oh, dein Beitrag über diese grossartige Erfindung von Henry Mill ist interessant und herrlich zu lesen. Sie veränderte das Schreiben und später die Kommunikation weltweit auf eine ungeahnte Weise.
    Wir lernten 1962 in der kaufmännischen Ausbildung in Zürich das Zwölffingersystem perfekt und ‘blind’ zu schreiben. Das kann ich nach fast 60 Jahren heute noch auf der PC Tastatur gebrauchen, lächeln. Das ist doch wunderbar. Auch bei mir steht noch eine sehr alte deutsche Adler Schreibmaschine im Keller, die ich einmal auf einem Flohmarkt erstand und von der ich mich nicht trennen kann.
    Liebe Rebecca, ich wünsche Ihnen Gesundheit und viele schöne Erlebnisse im neuen Jahr. Bleiben Sie munter.

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    1. Oh, your post on this great invention by Henry Mill is interesting and lovely to read. It changed writing and later communication worldwide in an unexpected way.
      In 1962, during our commercial training in Zurich, we learned to write the twelve-finger system perfectly and “blindly”. After almost 60 years I can still use that on the PC keyboard today, smile. That’s wonderful. I also have a very old German Adler typewriter in the basement, which I once bought at a flea market and which I cannot part with. Dear Rebecca, I wish you good health and many happy new years. Stay awake.

      Thank you so much for your comments, Ernst, which I translated for others to read. I did not know about he the Adler typewriter. I looked up Adler name and found that the Adler factory produced bicycles, typewriters, motorcycles and calculators in addition to cars. I especially appreciated your thoughts on “staying awake.” Yes, that is an excellent plan for 2021. Enjoy every day. Thank you for you comments – so very much appreciated.

      Vielen Dank für Ihre Kommentare, Ernst, die ich übersetzt habe, damit andere sie lesen können. Ich wusste nichts über die Adler-Schreibmaschine. Ich suchte nach Adlers Namen und stellte fest, dass in der Adler-Fabrik neben Autos auch Fahrräder, Schreibmaschinen, Motorräder und Taschenrechner hergestellt wurden. Ich habe Ihre Gedanken zum Thema „Wach bleiben“ besonders geschätzt. Ja, das ist ein ausgezeichneter Plan für 2021. Genießen Sie jeden Tag. Vielen Dank für Ihre Kommentare – sehr geschätzt.

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  16. This is an interesting piece of history. I agree with the moral of your story. We do impact others, in both our creations and actions, in unknown ways for time to come.

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    1. I am delighted that you stopped by, LaDonna, and added to the conversation. I agree, we forget that our actions have unknown outcomes. Many thanks for your comment – very much appreciated.

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  17. I loved this post, it makes me think of my Mum she taught my brothers and me how to touch type when we went to high school and thank goodness she did. She went for an interview for her first job as a trainee accounts clerk and they asked her if she could touch type, she said “yes” and when offered the job had to spend the whole weekend teaching herself on her aunties old typewriter, she said it was a good thing she liked making tea and coffee and was good at maths.

    I remember she made us practise we did fly a red kite here, and the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog over and over again eventually without looking at the keys but that was on a computer keyboard so you can make mistakes unlike the typewriter in the photo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I LOVE the story about your mother and the touch typing question. Oh, I am now imagining her with a cup of tea teaching herself how to type within a weekend. The keys were flying those two days. When my son was learning how to type they had computer games with Pumba and Timon and others that made it fun. I confess it was fun just to play the games. And you are right – computers have that wonderful way of unmaking mistakes. Isn’t it interesting that a inanimate object like a typewriting has so many stories attached to it. Thank you so much for your visit and you comments, Charlotte. Very much appreciated.

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  18. A fascinating piece of history, Rebecca, and I love the picture. When I think of typewriters, I always think of the main character in Stephen King’s novel, Salem’s Lot, who is a writer and spends a lot of time clacking away on a typewriter. I learned to type on an electronic typewriter but now I use a PC. It helps a lot that I can touch type. Adds to my speed.

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    1. Do you remember changing the ribbon on the electric typewriters. I never quite mastered the technique. After working on a manual typewriter, my fingers pressed too hard on the keys. I confess I have never read a Stephen King novel. Yikes!

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      1. Luckily, I never had to change the ribbon. Our teachers did that and after college I started using a word processor. Isn’t it great how life has progressed. I can’t imagine not having a washing machine either. I read Salem’s Lot and The Shining when I was 10 years old, Rebecca. I still sleep with a soft night light as a result [smile!]

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      2. You were a very brave 10 year old, Robbie! I agree – the progress has been extraordinary. Using a speech recorder has been a learning process. For me, it is easier to use a typewriter to get my thoughts onto paper rather than through voice. But I am learning….very slowly.

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  19. I do love history. One of my favorite subjects. We can learn much by looking back to the past. I have typed on a typewriter like the one you featured in this post. I thank those from the past that have given us so much and brought us to the point where we are now. Very interesting post and I enjoyed reading it very much.

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    1. I agree – history records the joys, tragedies, progress, failure and triumphs of the human experience. What was will never come again, which is a profound reminder to live our days purposely. Mary Oliver says it best:

      “Instructions for living a life.
      Pay attention.
      Be astonished.
      Tell about it.”

      Liked by 1 person

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