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In 1875, Mark Twain described the typewriter as a “new fangled writing machine”.
He soon developed an appreciation for the convenience and efficiency it afforded.
As we take a look at the history of this once indispensable technology, it’s hard not to gain an appreciation for the typewriter’s impact on our culture.
And when we combine the feel of those keys and productive sound of tapping with modern computing technology, it’s not surprising to see why it might be making a comeback.
The origins of the Typewriter: A Patent in Britain
The idea of creating a machine to produce letters automatically is documented in a patent awarded to Henry Mill in 1714 by Queen Anne of Britain.
The patent states:
“An artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and publick records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.”
Beyond the patent, no evidence of Mill’s typewriting device has been discovered.
Early Efforts to Invent a Practical Device
Further efforts to invent the typewriter remain hidden until 1829 when William Austin Burt patented his “typographer.”
Burt’s machine was a large, bulky apparatus on legs, described by some as looking like a butcher’s block, which performed poorly.
Over the next several decades, more than fifty men worked to develop a typing machine with little success.
No one was able to invent a machine which could put words on paper faster than a man could write with a pen.
At least, not until the 1860s.
Success: Creating a Practical Machine
In the 1860s, printer and newspaperman Christopher Latham Sholes spent his free time designing and creating machines to make his work easier.
One such invention, the typewriter, created with the assistance of Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule, was patented in 1868.
After a period of negotiations, Remington Arms purchased the manufacturing rights to the Sholes’ Type-Writer in 1873.
It was readily apparent that Remington’s sewing machine influenced the design.
Remington worked to improve the typewriter, making it ready for manufacturing and sales to the public.
It was mounted on a table with legs and the carriage return action was performed using a treadle.
Their advertising also compared it to the sewing machine, describing it as the same size as a sewing machine and declaring it would become as indispensable.
As strange as it sounds, on the Remington Model 1 typewriter, the typists were unable to see what they were typing.
The printed area of the paper was blocked by the mechanism forcing the typist to roll the paper out of the machine to check their work.
After the success of the Remington Model 1, the typewriter began its transformation, becoming very similar to the machine we see today.
By 1909, eighty-nine typewriter manufacturers existed in the US (including iconic names like Underwood and Smith-Corona) … and the typewriter was on its way to becoming indispensable.
Just Add Electricity
As Thomas Edison observed the evolution of Shole’s prototype design, he predicted the typewriter would one day be powered by electricity.
Edison himself tinkered with the design, building an electromagnetic typewriter driven by a series of magnets. His design did not prove practical, but the development of the electrical powered typewriter was just around the corner.
In the late 1920s, electric typewriters appeared on the market with limited success.
It was not until the IBM Model 01 emerged, after the company invested over a million dollars into research and service facilities, that the electric typewriter met with tremendous success.
The typewriter had indeed become indispensable to many businesses and soon became a household item.
As IBM continued working on their design, they introduced the “Selectric” in 1961, which replaced the moving carriages and type bars with a printing element. No larger than a golf ball, this spherical element improved performance.
Over the years IBM continued refinement of the “Selectric” by adding new features and improvements.
Perhaps the most revolutionary of these occurred in 1973 with the introduction of “Lift-Off” tape.
By Oliver Kurmis – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, Link
The tape allowed the typist to virtually “lift-off” mistakes from the typed copy. No more erasing or correction fluid.
Typewriters with memory were introduced in 1973.
By 1977, the IBM Memory 100 Typewriter contained a 100-page built-in action file.
Why the QWERTY Keyboard?
Why are the letters on keyboards arranged the way they appear today?
Even computer laptops continue to use the Qwerty keyboard, although the original problem the keyboard arrangement was meant to solve no longer exists.
On Sholes’ early designs, the keyboard was much different.
Resembling a piano, it was designed in an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys.
He assumed it would be easier to locate each letter through the hunt and peck method if they were presented in alphabetical order.
The type bars that moved the letters to make their imprint on the paper were sluggish. And commonly used letters close in proximity to each other caused jams due to these sluggish movements.
In an effort to reduce these jams, Sholes rearranged the letters, spacing the commonly used letter combinations across the keyboard.
Sholes knew the new keyboard arrangement would slow down the “hunt-and-peck” typists, giving each type bar time to fall back into place avoiding the movements of the next as it moved into position to make its imprint on the paper.
Sholes never imagined that typing would be done without looking at the keyboard or would be much faster than handwriting, which is approximately 20 words per minute or less.
Beyond QWERTY?: Other Keyboard Designs
A decade or two after Sholes released his design, the Qwerty keyboard became very popular.
People soon learned to type quickly with it as they grew comfortable with the arrangement and because fewer jams were experienced.
When the Dvorak keyboard entered the picture in the 1940s, it faced a lot of resistance from Qwerty lovers.
The Dvorak keyboard actually proved faster than the Qwerty, and became popular among programmers.
The Dvorak keyboard took advantage of the fact that most people are right handed, optimizing it so that the majority of the keystrokes were completed using the right hand, reducing stress on the fingers … if you are right handed.
After months of lessons and hundreds of hours of practice, students of typing schools developed proficiency and speed using the Qwerty keyboard.
For those who were self-taught, the process could take even longer.
After investing this much time to learn the confusing Qwerty keyboard layout, new layouts, such as the Dvorak, were destined to fail, as no one wanted to expend the energy, time and costs to learn a new keyboard layout.
Ten-Finger and Touch-Typing
The “hunt-and-peck” method continued until around 1878.
The head of a Cincinnati school for stenographers, Mrs. L. V. Longley, promoted and taught ten-finger typing, although students continued to look at the keyboard.
Ten years later, Frank E. McGurrin, a self-taught ten-finger touch-type (without looking at the keys) contestant, won a well-publicized typing contest in 1888, beating out the claimed “world’s fastest typist,” Louis Tab, who used a four-finger method.
It wasn’t until this victory that touch-typing began to catch on.
Eventually the increased speed and reduced finger fatigue enabled touch-typing to earn its place as the standard still used today.
Mark Twain and the Typewriter
Although Mark Twain showed disdain for most machinery in his short stories, it is alleged he is the world’s first author to use a typewriter.
Twain’s manuscript, Life on the Mississippi, was submitted to his publisher in typewritten form.
In a letter to his brother in 1875, he describes the typewriter as a “new fangled writing machine.”
He went on to describe the machine’s virtues saying, “I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair & work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don’t muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.”
- At least 112 typing machines were developed before the Remington Model 1.
- Mark Twain was one of the first people to acquire a Sholes & Glidden Typewriter, and one of the first, if not the first, author to submit a typed manuscript to a publisher.
- In the late 1800s, “The Dollar Typewriter” became the least expensive typewriter … selling for $1.
- Poor spellers resisted buying the first typewriters because they could no longer hide their poor spelling practices behind bad handwriting.
- Sholes’ original prototype typewriter is locked up in a vault in the Smithsonian
Although the typewriter reigned supreme during its heyday, computers have all but replaced them in the Western World.
It continues to be used, however, in developing countries around the world.
And although typewriters are rarely used today, their distinction as a truly glorious machine makes them popular and has given them a future as collectibles.
But there is hope…
For those of use who truly appreciate the unique feel and experience of using an old-fashioned mechanical keyboard, there a couple new options to check out.
Penna Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard
Elretron’s Penna, a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, offers classical design and retro styling for those wanting to embrace the appearance, touch and feel of the typewriter, while also retaining all the features of their tablet.
Although many companies offer keyboards which integrate with wireless devices, the Penna is designed to have the feeling of a mechanical keyboard.
Retro chrome keycaps plus keys requiring more force will enable you to have the typewriter experience with all the advantages of modern technology.
Another example is the Qwerkywriter Typewriter Wireless Mechanical Keyboard.
Like the Penna, the Qwerkywriter features round typewriter keycaps and the classic typewriter look.
It has a concave surface with ergonomic benefits along with the ‘click tactile’ feel of the original keyboard and an integrated tablet stand.
Plus, the Qwerkywriter connects wireless to any Bluetooth enabled device. It’s most striking feature is the solid metal, chrome plated Return bar, which functions as the enter key. Pretty ingenuous.
Attempting only to create a machine which could type words faster than they could be handwritten, Sholes would’ve never imagined someone might eventually type more than two-hundred words per minute.
Nor would he have imagined typewriters could communicate with each other over great distances through phone lines, which also did not exist.
Although the typewriter revolutionized businesses world-wide, he believed his machine might turn out to be nothing more than a fad, stating, “You know that my apprehension is, that the thing may take a while, and for a while there may be an active demand for them, but that like any other novelty, it will have its brief day and be thrown aside.”
How wrong he was!