Rasmus Malling-Hansen

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Rasmus Malling-Hansen
Rasmus Malling-Hansen (Malthe Engelstedt painting).jpg
Rasmus Malling-Hansen, detail from a painting by Malthe Engelsted's painting L'Hombre (1887).
Born (1835-09-05)5 September 1835
Died 27 September 1890(1890-09-27) (aged 55)
Nationality Danish
Alma mater University of Copenhagen
Known for Hansen Writing Ball
Awards Order of Vasa (1876)
Order of the Dannebrog (1880)
Scientific career
Fields Priest, inventor, scientist, educator
Rasmus Malling-Hansen signature.jpg

Rasmus Malling-Hansen (5 September 1835 – 27 September 1890) was a Danish inventor, minister and principal at the Royal Institute for the Deaf.

Early career

The 1870 Hansen Writing Ball model.
The 1878 model of the writing ball.

Malling-Hansen developed his Hansen Writing Ball further throughout the 1870s and '80s, and in 1874 he patented a new model jointly in which the cylinder was replaced by a flat carriage on which the paper was fastened. In 1875, the writing ball found its well-known tall shape. With this model, he found a mechanical solution for the movement of the paper, dispensing with the battery. The writing ball was sold in many countries in Europe, but probably due to the relatively high price, it was never a great commercial success. Even so, it was a great success in different exhibitions, Malling-Hansen and Halll, received the first prize medal at a large industrial exhibition in Copenhagen in 1872, and at the world exhibitions in Vienna in 1873, as well as in Paris in 1878. That year Malling-Hansen developed a fast speed writing machine to be used for stenography, called the Takygraf. Malling-Hansen was also the first person to discover the unique possibilities of blue carbon paper, and developed a copying technique he called the Xerografi. It could, in a relatively short time, produce up to one hundred copies of letters and drawings.

Education career

Malling-Hansen's period as a principal at the Royal Institute for the Deaf, from 1865 to 1890, was a period of change and new ideas. Malling-Hansen very soon understood that the teaching of deaf-mutes was ineffective because of the large variation of the pupils' abilities. Some of them were totally deaf and had no speech ability, and some were what we today would call mentally retarded. Others had a slight hearing ability, and could also speak. From Malling-Hansen came, in 1867, a proposal to divide the pupils into 3 different groups, depending on their abilities. Malling-Hansen also saw to it that the newest pedagogical method, the speech method (reading of the lips) was put into use for the group called the not originally deaf; those who had a limited hearing ability and could also speak. The sign method was still to be used when teaching the group called the originally deaf, those who had no hearing ability and no language, and the mentally retarded. Together with the Keller Institutions, the Royal Institute divided these groups between them. The Institute was to educate the originally deaf, and the Keller Institutions the not originally deaf and the mentally retarded.

Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1887.

Malling-Hansen also wanted to improve the conditions under which the deaf-mutes lived. This was in a very early stage of the educational system, and the understanding of children's needs to play and to relax was not very developed. They had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, and in addition to the teaching they had to work in the workshops of the school in late hours. The death rate was extreme, and in the first period of the Institute, from 1824 until 1839, one-third of all the children died, mostly of lung diseases. Malling-Hansen understood that the main reason for the lung diseases, was the lack of space in the school - there were too many children in a too small area. He therefore came up with the proposal to set up a new building, and also to install electricity, but unfortunately both proposals were refused by the authorities. But Malling-Hansen made sure to take into use all possible areas of the school, and he made improvements and enlarged the outside garden, and all children regularly worked with gardening, the girls more than the boys, as things were in those days. In Malling-Hansen's time as principal, the death rate sunk drastically among the children, and in the last periods of his time the death rate was lower than in the similar population of hearing children. In 1879 Malling-Hansen made a proposal to establish a new Institute in Jylland, and this time his plans were realized, and in 1881 the Royal Institute for the Deaf-mutes in Fredericia was founded.

Malling-Hansen was a man who had great impact on the development of the Danish and also the Nordic educational system of his time. He was often used in public committees, and in 1890, shortly before his death, he held a lecture about the development of the education of the deaf-mutes on a large inter-Nordic conference in Copenhagen. His care and concern for the deaf children, who were among the weakest of the society, was unique, and they showed their appreciation by attending his funeral in 1890 in great numbers. They had lost a father figure and a true friend.

Discoverer of the growth of children in periods

An old picture of Malling-Hansen's tombstone in Garrisons churchyard in Copenhagen. In 1947 the stone was moved to his old school.

At a certain point Malling-Hansen wanted to investigate whether the growth and the increase in weight were satisfactory among the children at the Institute. With his usual thoroughness he started a scientific investigation, which included several weighings and measurings of the children's height every day. To shorten the time needed to perform the weighings, Malling-Hansen had some large weights made, where he could weigh up to ten children at the time. The results soon showed him that the growth of the children was not a constantly ongoing process throughout all the year, but that the children grew in periods, and this was totally unknown to science up until then. Malling-Hansen saw that the growth was affected by some unknown factor, and he also started measurements of trees, and here he found again the same factor.

He also was in contact with scientists around the world, who reported their results from different measuring projects initiated by Malling-Hansen. There were still many unanswered questions to investigate further when Malling-Hansen died, but in 1886 he published a book where he presented the results of his studies. The book was called Perioder i Børns Vækst og i Solens Varme, and here he presented his idea, that the factor that caused the variations in the growth of the children and in nature as such in some way was related to the variations in the heat of the sun. His discoveries became well known not only in Denmark, but also internationally, and his book was also translated into German. In 1884 he had also held a lecture on a scientific conference in Copenhagen, attended by scientists from all over the world.

Malling-Hansen did not become an old man. He worked extremely hard all his life, from the time he attended the Jonstrup school for teachers in 1852, during his theological education, in his work at the Institute, and with his inventions and scientific studies. He was married in 1865 to the daughter of the former principal, Cathrine Heiberg, and he became the father of seven daughters. His first wife was giving birth to two more daughters in 1876, when both she and the twin girls died. Malling-Hansen remarried in 1880, to a woman he knew from his youth, Anna Steenstrup. He was also a freemason, and was known to always have an open door to everyone who wanted to see him, for he was a man of a good and friendly heart. He was an internationally known inventor and scientist when he died, on his way home from a meeting in his lodge, in a dark autumn night in 1890.

One of Malling-Hansen's daughters, Johanne Agerskov, together with her husband, Michael Agerskov, in 1920 published a religious, ethical and philosophical book, called Toward the Light.

Honours and awards



  • Jonstrup-bogen, nr 6, 1928, Jonstrupsamfundets Forlag, Copenhagen, page 3-25, by Arild S. Ebbe.
  • Det Kongelige døvstumme-institut i København 17. April 1807-17.April 1907 samt meddelser om døvstummesagens udvikling, by Dr. jur. C. Goos, Copenhagen 1907, page 226-284, about Malling-Hansen's period as principal.
  • Opfindernes Liv, første del, by Helge Holst, Copenhagen and Kristiania 1914, page 348-352, chapter about Rasmus Malling-Hansen, written by Fritz Bech.
  • Hvem er Skrivekuglens Opfinder? By Johanne Agerskov, Otto Markussen’s boghandel 1925.
  • Die Biographie der Erfinder der Schreibkugel, R. Malling-Hansen by Johanne Agerskov, undated manuscript.
  • Nietzsches Schreibkugel, by Dieter Eberwein, Typoskript Verlag, 2005

External links

  • The International Rasmus Malling-Hansen Society
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