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Nine “striking” facts about the history of the typewriter

The first machine known as the typewriter was patented on 23rd June 1868, by printer and journalist Christopher Latham Sholes of Wisconsin. Though it was not the first personal printing machine attempted—a patent was granted to Englishman Henry Mill in 1714, yet no machine appears to have been built—Sholes’ invention was the first to be practical enough for mass production and use by the general public. With the help of machinist Samuel W. Soulé and fellow inventor Carlos Glidden, Sholes had spent the summer of 1867 developing his machine, and by September of that year was able to type his name in all capital letters.

That was just the beginning, as the typewriter’s societal and cultural impacts are still felt today. We’ve gathered these fascinating facts about this remarkable device, from its effect on women in the workforce to its direct influence on computers over a century later.

1. Christopher Latham Sholes (1819-1890) had produced 50 machines by 1873, but was unable to sell them; that year, he sold the production rights to gun manufacturer Philo Remington (1816-1889). By 1874, the first Remington-made typewriter was sold by E. Remington & Sons. In 1878, the first typewriter to offer upper and lowercase letters, the Remington No. 2, debuted.

2. In the 1890s, Remington competitor John Thomas Underwood (1857-1937) bought the rights to a more practical “front-stroke” machine from inventor Franz Xavier Wagner. The US Navy ordered 250 Underwood typewriters in 1897, solidifying his place in the market, and by 1915, the company employed 7,500 workers and produced 500 typewriters daily.

Image credit: Drawing for a Typewriter, 06/23/1868. This is the printed patent drawing for a typewriter invented by Christopher L. Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and J. W. Soule. From the National Archives. Brian0918, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Even though he had been unsuccessful in the marketing of his invention, Sholes was aware that the typewriter would be vital in helping women achieve entrepreneurial freedom, saying it was a means for women to “more easily earn a living.” Typewriting led to a separation of the authorship and the writing up of documents, which provided a new social avenue for women, especially in business and politics.

4. Mark Twain was the first author to submit a book manuscript in typed copy, having bought a typewriter in 1874. The typewriter became a symbol of a certain type of writer, and many are still preserved in the estates or museums of well-known authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and Ian Fleming.

5. In 1909, G. C. Mares described a hypothetical situation that would allow “a man sitting at his Zerograph [another early typewriter] in London…to hold written converse with his correspondents in the furthermost parts of the globe, without the intervention of any physical connection”—a process that sounds very similar to email.

6. The original typewriter’s most ubiquitous impact on modern society, seen all around the world on computer keyboards and mobile phones, is its key layout known as QWERTY. Christopher Latham Sholes originally tried an alphabetical layout in his prototypes, but the keys would jam; his solution shifted three of the most commonly used letters (E, T, and A) to the left hand, resulting in a design that slowed typists down and avoided jamming on the earliest machines.

7. In 1932, William Dealey and August Dvorak introduced the Dvorak keyboard, which was designed to make typing faster and less fatiguing; studies showed it increased accuracy and speed by about 70%. However, it never caught on because QWERTY had become too entrenched in society. It had been the sole layout when Remington cornered the market at the beginning, and by the 1930s, manufacturers, typists, and typing schools had too much invested in the status quo to change, even to a more efficient format.

Image credit: Fig. 1: Machines with one character per key. Fig. 2: Machines with two characters per key. Fig. 3: Machines with three characters per key. Larousse mensuel illustré, 1911, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

8. Famed polymath and horologist Rupert T. Gould (1890-1948) was fascinated with typewriters his entire life; by the 1940s, he had one of the largest collections in existence—at least 71—and wrote the first independent history of the machine, called The Story of the Typewriter in 1949.

9. It has been argued that the typewritten page was an influence in the move in book designs from justified lines to even-spacing between words and the uneven right-hand margins this causes. Artists in the 1950s also used the typewriter to experiment with the placement of text to create “concrete poetry.” Poet Aram Saroyan wrote:

I write on a typewriter, almost never in hand … and my machine—an obsolete red-top Royal Portable—is the biggest influence on my work. This red hood hold [sic] the mood, keeps my eye happy. The type-face is a standard pica; if it were another style I’d write (subtly) different poems. And when a ribbon gets dull my poems I’m sure change.

Featured image credit: Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter in his studio, Ernest Hemingway House, Key West, Florida, USA. Acroterion, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Nori

    Lovely, lovely,lovely,

  2. Martin Howard

    How nice to read these 10 pithy and intriguing highlights from the history of the typewriter.

    I have been collecting 19th century typewriters for 30 years and have had many wonderful adventures in doing so.

    Please consider seeing my collection at http://www.antiquetypewriters.com

    Regards,
    Martin Howard (Toronto)

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