The Complete History of The Typewriter

A typewriter is a mechanical writing tool, usually equipped with push-buttons with which characters can be pressed onto paper.

The concept of the typewriter dates back to 1714, but was not a commercial succes until 1870.

It’s development and acceptance has been a bumpy process, but the device has left a definite mark on the cultural heritage of many people. Its influence is still visible in the functional aspects of modern writing technology.

Who invented the typewriter?

The English claim that it was Henry Mill who invented the typing machine in 1714.

Henry received the first typewriter patent from Queen Anne for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters … whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print … 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 be erased or counterfeited without manifested discovery.”

As there exist no drawings or models of Mills machine, the patent is the only proof of his work. This was the first in a long line of around 112 patented pre typewriter designs, almost all of them by Europeans.

The Italians are of the opinion it was their countryman Pellegrino Turri who fabricated the first typewriter in 1808. His fellow countryman Giuseppe Ravizaa produced various models between 1837 and 1855. The French see Xavier Progin as the orginal inventor, with his “Plum Typografique” in 1837. Austrians believe Peter Mitterhofer was the father of the writing machine, and the Russians claim M. Alissoff deserves creator credit.

The United States however coined William Austin Burt the first person to fabricate and use a (wooden) typographer prototype, with which he wrote a letter to his wife. The writing process was slower than longhand writing, and the prototype perished in a fire, which killed any potential for succes.

Christopher Sholes and the first practical typewriter

While there are many different opinions on the identity of the first inventor of the typewriter, there is hardly any debate who designed the first typewriter that was taken into mass production: Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule invented the first practical typewriter in 1868.

This team of engineers worked together in a small workshop in Milwaukee. In 1876 they sold the patent to their model to E. Remington and Sons, producers of weapons and sowing machines at the time. The first commercial typewriter, Model 1, was manufactured by Remington on the 1st of march in Ilion, New York.

Here are two examples of the patents Sholes registered:

  • US Patent 418,239: Type-writing machine by Christopher Latham Sholes. Issued December 31, 1889.
  • US Patent 558,428: Type-writing machine by Christopher Latham Sholes. Issued April 14, 1896.

During the 1880s many different types of typewriters were designed, but the model we know today as a typical typewriter was the Underwood. This version was invented by F. X. Wagner and produced by the Wagner and Underwood Company.

Not an overnight success

The typewriter arrived silently into the public world. As the New York Times recalled later: “ The advent of the first writing machine was not announced in cable dispatches and newspaper headlines. It slipped into existence quietly, timidly, unobtrusively, with an indifferent world to face.” This may have been because the product was associated with work rather than social life.

Initially typewriters were also slow sellers. One reason given was that many professionals felt typing would appear rude to potential clients, as there would be no personal touch. Once it became apparent the efficiency of office work could greatly increase with the use of mechanical typing, the machines gained popularity in work environments, and a new profession was born: that of typist.

The Development of the QWERTY Layout

Initially most manufacturers used their own order of keys. The arms with the characters got stuck regularly however, because the most frequently used characters were close together.

Sholes and Glidden then designed the QWERTY layout, in which these keys were far apart. The name stems from the first 6 letters of the top row. This system, based on an ideal positioning of the most frequently used keys, is still in use in the western world.

Another version of the reasoning behind this layout is that salesmen could very easily type in the word “typewriter” for prospects, to demonstrate the speed of producing text with a typewriter. It has also been rumored that Sholes intention in creating the QWERTY layout was to slow down the typist deliberately so that the flaws in his typewriter were never noticed.

A selection of various models of typewriters

As typewriters became widely used, many different models were produced by manufacturers. Below are some examples to illustrate the wide range of typewriter designs and features.

Royal Bar-Lock. Est. 1910

This typewriter had a double keyboard. Without the switch key, that was developed by Remington in 1878, typewriters needed two keyboards. One set for the lowercase characters and one for the capital letters. Because of the location of the levers it was very difficult for the typist to read what was being pressed in the printed.

Multiplex. 1919

Hammond made a lot of innovating typewriters. On the Multiplex various fonts could be printed. On the typewriter the slogan “For All Nations and Tongues” was imprinted. Usually the different fonts were structured in 3 rows, but sometimes in 4, for which a second switch key was needed.

Lettera 32. Est. 1960

Marcello Nizzoli was de first and most influential product designer at Olivetti. In the 40s and 50s he was mostly focused on office supplies, including typewriters. This Lettera 32 is based on his portable model, the Lettera 22.

Samsung SQ-3000. Est. 1990

The Samsung is a typical example of a hybrid writer that combined a compact electrical typewriter with data memory. On the small screen one line of text was displayed before it was printed. These types of models became widely popular in the 80s, until they were driven off by the introduction of the personal desktop computer.

The End of Typewriters

For over hundred years the typewriter remained a huge success. There were improvements to increase speed, correct errors, combine different characters in one key and to make typing less noisy. The device was an important tool for everything that had to be written.

Around the 1930s the portable typewriters arrived, and electrical versions were developed. The portable typewriters were mostly used by sales representatives, journalist and army clerks. These were light, more fragile and produces low quality typing.

By 1961 the mechanical versions of typewriters were mostly out of use, and with the introduction of the personal computers in the nineties the mechanical typewriter quickly disappeared out of daily use. Till the invention of the computer the typewriter was an essential tool in office places, and the typewriter itself has influenced the design and functionality of computers.

The Rebirth of Typewriters

Though newer writing technology offers many benefits like time-saving auto-correction and faster and easier typing, there are some reasons to consider switching back to a mechanical typewriter, for example:

  • they are distraction free
  • they challenge a user to be more efficient and aware of their errors
  • they give a richer sensory experience which connects you closely to the creative process

source: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20410364

There are many established and upcoming writers who prefer using an old typewriter. Prices however are skyrocketing as they are no longer produced, and are becoming quite popular among collectors.

Not only do people collect typewriters for their beautiful classic appearance and place in industrial history, but also for the famous books and plays that have been created on typewriters.

**Update: In November 2014 Angelina Jolie gave a very special marriage gift to her ex-husband Brad Pitt. She was able to acquire the typewriter previously owned by Ernest Hemingway. On this 1926 Underwood model Hemingway wrote his famous For Whom the Bell Tolls, and it was the last typewriter he used before committing suicide.

Angelina bought the machine from collector and police chief Steve Soborroff, for the price of 250.000 dollars. (Source: TMZ, http://www.tmz.com/2014/11/08/angelina-jolie-brad-pitt-wedding-gift-ernest-hemingway-typewriter/)

Other celebrities and well-known writers who love and use typewriters are:

  • Martin Amis
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Tom Hanks
  • Tom Wolfe
  • Danielle Steel
  • P.J. ORourke

(source: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/gallery/2014/nov/05/typewriters-and-their-owners-famous-authors-at-work-in-pictures and http://mashable.com/2014/02/15/modern-writers-technology/)

Typewriter art

The first typed manuscript was Life by Mark Twain in 1883. Besides being used for writing literature and movie and theater scripts, the typewriter has also inspired composers to create musical pieces with the typing tool as instrument. For example:

  • The American composer Leroy Anderson composed the concert The Typewriter, with a typewriter as instrument
  • Another musical piece involving a typewriter is the Ballet Parade by Erik Satie
  • And finally Concert for typewriter in D by the Estonian rock band In Spe, 1984

Books on Typewriters

To find out more about the history of typewriters, visit your local library and check out these books:

  • Typewriter Topics, The Typewriter: An Ilustrated History, : Dover, 2000.Adler, M.A. , Antique Typewriters: From Creed to QWERTY, : Schiffer, 2007.
  • Beeching, W. A. , A Century of the Typewriter, : Heinemann, 1974.
  • Darren Wershler-Henry, The Iron Whim: A Fragmented HIstory of Typewriting, : Cornell University Press, 2007.
  • Current, R.N. , The typewriter (A history of the Sholes & Gidden), Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1954
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