As you squint and struggle to decipher old handwritten records, pause and ponder for a moment the glory of the typewriter, which made more-recent genealogy documents mercifully legible. Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the first patent issued for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing,” issued in 1714 to Henry Mill, an English engineer. Alas, there’s no evidence that Mill actually produced or sold his device.
The first working typewriter probably wasn’t developed for nearly another century. In 1808, Italian Pellegrino Turri invented a typewriter for his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. No plans for the machine survive, but letters typed by the countess do; the invention and their relationship inspired a 2010 novel, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace. Many such early typewriter attempts aimed to benefit the vision impaired rather than office workers and authors.
The first American patent for a “typographer” was issued in 1829 to William Austin Burt. An “index” rather than a “keyboard” machine, Burt’s invention required the operator to turn a dial to select each character. Although slower than writing by hand, index typewriters continued to be produced throughout the 19th century.
Charles Thurber, another inventor seeking to help the blind, first added a moveable carriage to a typing machine in 1843. In Alabama, John Pratt built a machine called the pterotype that was presented at the Royal Society scientific academy and pictured in Scientific American in 1867, inspiring still other tinkerers. It’s been estimated that more than 50 individuals “invented” the typewriter over the years.
The first commercially produced typewriter was the Hansen Writing Ball, which looked like an oversized pincushion attached to a brass hemisphere, patented by Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen in 1870. Its 52 keys activated letters attached to short pistons. Thanks to this design and Malling-Hansen’s experiments to
position the keys so the fastest fingers struck the most frequently used letters, the Writing Ball was the first typewriter substantially faster than writing by hand. Because later models employed a solenoid conductor to return the carriage, it was also arguably the first “electric” typewriter.
Despite all this early history, Christopher Latham Sholes, a Milwaukee printer, gets credit for inventing the typewriter as we know it—and the QWERTY keyboard. With partners Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, Sholes initially tackled the challenge of printing consecutive numbers in the pages of a book. In 1867, Glidden suggested the same technology could be used to type letters. Sholes responded by building a machine that typed the letter W.
Not until 1873 was Sholes satisfied with a gizmo that could type all 26 characters—a device a history of IBM describes as looking “like a cross between a loom and a jack-in-the-box.” The QWERTY arrangement of letters was likely devised to separate the most frequently used typebars (the moving pieces with letters that strike the paper)—and perhaps slow down overeager typists—to minimize jamming. The initial Sholes & Glidden typewriter, like most 19th-century models, was an “understroke” or “blind” machine, in which the typist couldn’t see the letters being produced without rolling the paper to check.
Sholes and partners contracted with the sewing-machine division of E. Remington & Sons—of firearms fame—to manufacture their “typewriter” (the first use of the term). The first Remington model showed the influence of the sewing-machine firm: It was adorned with painted flowers and decals, mounted on a stand similar to a sewing-machine table, and the carriage return was operated by a foot-treadle. An early ad enthused, “It is certain to become as indispensable in families as the sewing machine.”
The Remington 2, released in 1878, was the first model we might recognize as a typewriter. It introduced a shift mechanism to produce lowercase as well as capital letters, and the carriage return was operated by hand. The ribbon reversed automatically, preventing damage from handling the flimsy strip of inked cloth. That same year, the first typing class was taught in New York City. By 1909, the US alone boasted 89 different typewriter manufacturers.
One of those firms, the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Co. of Stamford, Conn., experimented with an electric typewriter—turned on and off by a Yale doorlock key on the side—as early as 1902. It wasn’t a commercial success, however, possibly because of the lack of standard electrical voltage from city to city.
James Field Smathers of Kansas City invented the first practical electric typewriter in 1914. Remington produced it in 1925. After passing through various companies, the Electromatic Typewriter was acquired by the International Business Machines Corp., which invested $1 million in what would become the IBM Model 01.
IBM revolutionized the electric typewriter—and the American office—with the introduction of the Selectric in 1961. It replaced typebars with a changeable “golf ball” that zipped along a slender metal rod, tilting and rotating to produce the desired character. In 1971, the Selectric II allowed typists to switch between pica (10 characters per inch) and elite (12 per inch) on the same machine. Two years later, the IBM Correcting Selectric, with a “lift-off” tape incorporated in the ribbon, made typewriter erasers and Liquid Paper obsolete.
Even easier corrections were possible using IBM’s Mag Card II typewriter, which memorized up to 8,000 characters, also introduced in 1973. But that forerunner of the word processor was also a harbinger of the end, as single-purpose typing machines could not compete with the versatility of personal computers. When Apple pioneered desktop publishing with the 1985 rollout of its first LaserWriter, the handwriting was on the wall—or, rather, the ink was on the page.