When was the typewriter invented? Let me offer a hint. The first printing press that used movable type (made of porcelain) was invented in the 1040s in China by Bi Sheng. Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg built a printing press in Europe that used moveable type and featured innovations in the metal alloys and the process for casting type. So how about the typewriter? In some ways, it seems but a small step removed from the printing press; just attach each piece of type to a bar and trigger it by hitting a key.
But the answer to my leading question may surprise you. A working typewriter was not invented until the 1870s, some 420 years after Gutenberg. Equally remarkable, the first typewriter patents are baffling to modern eyes. They had no lettered keyboards, but instead used piano keys. Also, the type hit the paper from underneath, making it impossible for operators to see what they were typing.
Designing a typewriter that could be manufactured and sold on a larger scale involved innovating materials so that the narrow type bars were stable for repeated use, designing the mechanism so that specific pieces of type marked the paper in the desired location without jamming, building a machine that moved an inked ribbon so that the type hit a fresh spot each time, and shifting the paper, both left-to-right and upward in even rows. A working manual typewriter was one of the most complicated pieces of mechanical machinery ever to enter mass production and widespread use.
In October 1867, Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Soule submitted a patent application for an "Improvement in Type-Writing Machines." Sholes, a former journalist who had become a customs collector at the port of Milwaukee, was working on a page numbering device in a machine shop where he met Glidden and Soule, both inventors of mechanical devices. Historians of technology have identified their machine as the 52nd in an uneven lineage stretching back to the mid-1700s. But work on typewriters accelerated in the 1860s, especially after Hans R. Malling J. Hansen built a beautiful "Writing Ball" in Denmark in 1865 and won prizes at several international exhibitions. Writing balls were custom-built by scientific instrument makers starting in 1870, but only about 180 were built before Hansen died suddenly in 1890.
To operate the Sholes, Glidden, and Soule machine, the "type writer," as typists were called in the 19th century, hit down on a key. A type bar (also termed a hammer in the patent application), to which a piece of lettered type was attached, pushed up through a notched circular brass disk. The disk served to guide the type to a central point where it would hit the ribbon. The paper was set in a frame above all of this and would slide from right to left and then return, all driven by the mechanical action of hitting the piano key. When the text reached the end of a line, the machine had a set pin that ensured the paper advanced on a north-south axis.
In the patent images and text description, Sholes, Glidden, and Soule typewriter had 21 keys. However, the physical patent model submitted to the USPTO (until 1880, inventors submitted scale models of their inventions in order to receive a US patent) has only 11 keys (see the image at the top of this page). Yet, Sholes sent his first typed letters of correspondence to friends and potential financial backers in the fall of 1867. So, while Sholes and his co-inventors could not have typed their patent application using the typewriter depicted in the patent that was issued by USPTO—or on the patent model that they presented to the USPTO—they could have done so using another one of the machines they were building. A massive fire at the USPTO in 1877 and the subsequent loss of archives makes it difficult to determine with certainty; it leaves us with a historical puzzle worth investigating further.
Of course, having the patent did not ensure the ability to manufacture or sell typewriters. James Densmore, an associate of Sholes' from his time as a journalist, was one of the early recipients of a typed letter and quickly invested in the enterprise. When he saw the actual machine in March 1868, he was reportedly disappointed and pushed Sholes to develop additional prototypes over the next ten years.
Densmore had an early Sholes model manufactured in Chicago, producing 15 at a total cost of $1,000. They proved defective and were junked. In 1873, Densmore signed a contract with the upstate New York gun manufacturer Remington to produce 1,000 of a different typewriter for $10,000. With additional modification by Remington's machinists and craftsmen, the typewriter was produced and went on sale as the Remington model 1 in 1874 for $125. Mark Twain was an early purchaser, buying it on impulse while visiting Boston. The credit rating firm R.G. Dun (later Dun and Bradstreet) bought 100 typewriters that year to speed reporting and posting of data.
However, overall sales were slow, since people had trouble envisioning uses for the new machines. Businesses employed scribes using printed ledger books and who followed their own rules for shorthand communication and did not trust typed documents as authentic. For home use, typed correspondence looked impersonal; there are numerous reports from early adopters of friends and family asking why they had employed a printing shop. Adding to the challenges of marketing the new machines, they seemed slow to potential users. After all, nobody knew how to touch type and the keys jammed easily. Sholes was aware of these problems and sent prototypes to court reporters and telegraph operators (the two most promising markets in his mind) for testing.
Sholes introduced the QWERTY keyboard (named for the letters appearing in the upper left) in a typewriter patented in 1878. The precise motive for the letter arrangement remains a point of contention among historians and economists, but the leading explanation holds that the letters were spaced to prevent jamming by slowing typing slightly. Others have suggested that telegraph operators influenced the keyboard layout based on how they transcribed incoming messages. Interestingly, Sholes makes no mention of the layout in his 1878 patent claims. Other keyboard arrangements, for example placing the letters DHIATENSOR in the home row instead of ASDFGHJKL;, reportedly would speed typing. However, none of the alternatives have caught on, with QWERTY now built into the muscle memory of billions of people worldwide.
By the mid-1880s, forces were converging to create a larger market for the typewriting machines. Firms were hiring specialized employees to handle growing volumes of correspondence; combined with changes to accounting practices, it became increasingly worthwhile for businesses to purchase typewriters. The Model 2 Remington, sold starting in 1878, introduced lowercase type and a shift key for uppercase. Sales then began to increase, especially as the United States emerged from a lengthy recession that depressed economic activity from 1873 until 1879.
Training schools, which especially taught women to type, started to spring up across the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere starting in the early 1880s. As typing became categorized as women's work, employment boomed for typists, clerks, and bookkeepers and accountants. But even as the typewriter opened new avenues to employment, it did not create conditions for equality of opportunity as typing became recast as "women's work."
Of course, electric typewriters and then computers all but fully displaced manual typewriters. One exception, the Bridgewater, New Jersey-based Royal Consumer Information Products continues to market the "Royal Epoch," a manual typewriter manufactured in China. And the Japanese firm, Nakajima, still makes electric typewriters. But for real aficionados, nothing is the same as keeping older models working. In fact, a repair shop in Berkeley, California, and a diverse set of typewriter enthusiasts are featured in the just-released documentary film, California Typewriter.
- Paul David, “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” American Economic Review 75 (1985), 332-337.
- Margery W. Davies, Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter (Temple University Press, 1982).
- Herkimer County Historical Society, The Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923. (Herkimer County Historical Society, 1923).
- Donald Hoke, Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector (Columbia University Press, 1990).
- C. Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machine,” US Patent 79,265, June 23, 1868.
- C. Latham Sholes, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machines,” US Patent 207,559, August 27, 1878.
- Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka, “On the Prehistory of QWERTY,” ZINBUN 42 (2011), 161-174.