The Development of the Automatic Writing Machine: The Typewriter

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The Development of the Automatic Writing Machine: The Typewriter


Prior to the nineteenth century, almost all letters, business records, and other documents were written by hand. The only practical alternative was to have them printed on a printing press—an expensive process if only a few copies were needed. Thus, almost all documents, whether business, legal, or personal, were handwritten. During the 1860s, three American inventors, Christopher Latham Sholes (1819-1890), Samuel W. Soulé, and Carlos Glidden, developed an automatic writing machine called the typewriter. Within two decades, a modified version of this machine would soar in popularity and revolutionize business practices around the world.


Various kinds of automatic writing machines were invented in the early nineteenth century. Many were large and difficult to use, and most printed words much more slowly than a person could write by hand. It was not until the second half of the century, however, that the first practical and commercially successful typewriter was invented.

Christopher Latham Sholes worked as a port official in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1860s. This job gave him time to pursue a second career as an inventor. Sholes had previously worked as a newspaper editor, and so he was familiar with printing presses and steel type. (A type is a rectangular piece of steel with a raised letter or symbol on one end.) Sholes worked on his inventions at a workshop owned by C.F. Kleinsteuber, where a group of inventors developed new machines.

In 1864, Sholes and Samuel W. Soulé, another inventor who frequented Kleinsteuber's, were granted a patent for a page-numbering machine. This machine could print consecutive numbers for the pages of a book or for a set of railway tickets. In 1867, Carlos Glidden, another regular at the workshop, showed Sholes an article in the journal Scientific American that described a writing machine. This machine was called the pterotype and had been patented by John Pratt in England the previous year. Glidden suggested that Sholes could modify his page-numbering machine to print letters as well as numbers.

Sholes, Glidden, and Soulé soon set about building such a machine. Their initial attempt consisted of a telegraph key connected to a single type with piano wire. This machine could only print the letter "W." Their first working model of the typewriter, however, could print all 26 letters, but it used piano keys to move individual types in a somewhat clumsy design. Their second model, patented in 1868, was much improved and could produce printed text faster than writing by hand. Despite this success, the men had difficulty raising the money necessary to manufacture their typewriter. Later that year, a businessman named James Densmore bought a share of the typewriter patent in exchange for taking over the previous costs involved in developing the machine.

Densmore first tried to interest the Automatic Telegraph Company in the typewriter, but Thomas Edison (1847-1931), who worked there as a mechanic, claimed that he could build a better model for less money. (Edison went on to invent the phonograph, the microphone, and the motion-picture camera, among many other inventions.) Finally, in 1873, Densmore arranged for Sholes to sign an agreement with the gun manufacturing company E. Remington and Sons for $12,000.

Remington had manufactured weaponry during the American Civil War, and it was now looking for items to produce during peacetime. The company had already added sewing machines to its inventory, and it put its first commercial typewriters up for sale in 1874. To type on a Sholes & Glidden, as the machines were called, the user pressed keys labeled with letters or symbols, similar to those on a computer keyboard. When a key was pressed, a type bar swung upward and hit an inked ribbon, printing the letter or symbol on the type on a sheet of paper. This upward striking mechanism kept the paper hidden from the typist, so that he or she could not see the words as they were typed. Such machines came to be known as blind writers. Sholes & Glidden typewriters sold for about $125 (about the cost of a home computer system in today's dollars). The first five years the typewriter was produced, only 5,000 were sold.


During the Industrial Revolution, machines came to be used to manufacture products faster than could be done by hand. Large factories replaced smaller workshops. Improved travel and communication between cities increased trade. The railroad, the telephone, and the telegraph each contributed to the growth of business. As business and industry grew, so did the amount of written papers. Simple record keeping soon became more than one person could handle just with pen and paper.

When the typewriter first appeared, however, the machine was regarded as little more than a novelty. For example, the Sholes & Glidden made an appearance at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, but unlike Alexander Graham Bell's (1847-1922) telephone, it made little impact. In fact, not a single typewriter sold. Many people initially thought the typewriter was a form of printing press, such as those used to produce newspapers and books. They had difficulty imagining how they might use the typewriter in their daily lives. It seemed to be too much trouble to use a machine just to write a business letter or fill out an invoice.

The public eventually overcame its reluctance after an improved version of the typewriter, the Remington Model 2, appeared in 1878. After several years, the Remington 2 became a tremendous success. In 1881, Remington sold a total of 1,200 typewriters for the year. By 1888, however, the company was selling 1,500 typewriters each month. As the Remington Model 2 began to catch on, many other manufacturers jumped at the chance to make a profit. In order to avoid infringing on Remington's patents, they had to come up with different—often drastically different—designs. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were typewriters with wheels of type, strips of type, and type shuttles. There were keyboards that had keys arranged in straight rows, curved rows, and even circles. By 1909, there were 89 manufacturers of typewriters in the United States alone. By 1905, the number of U.S. patents relating to typewriters exceeded 2,500.

As the typewriter came to be an accepted business tool found in most offices, several changes occurred to its basic design. The original Sholes & Glidden typewriter could only be used to write capital letters. The Remington 2, however, could type lowercase letters as well as capitals. Each bar of type on this machine contained two letters, a lowercase and an uppercase. The letter that printed was controlled by a shift key. When the typist pressed the shift key, an uppercase letter would be typed. When he or she released the shift key, a lowercase letter would be typed.

At about the same time as the Remington 2 came on the market, other manufacturers were producing double-keyboard typewriters. Double-keyboard typewriters had a separate key for each uppercase and lowercase letter. For instance, these typewriters had both an "S" key and an "s" key. As touch-typing came to be widely accepted, double-keyboard typewriters grew less popular and went out of fashion; they were slower because typists had difficulty using so many keys.

A second change to typewriter design was brought about when Remington decided to make its own typewriter ribbons rather than purchasing them. In response, John Thomas Underwood, a ribbon manufacturer, founded his own typewriter company. He bought a new model of typewriter that allowed the typist to see the letters on the paper as they were being typed. The type bars on this machine swung forward and hit the ribbon from the front rather than swinging upward and hitting the ribbon from the bottom. This type of machine became known as a visible writer (as opposed to the blind writers being produced by Remington). The Underwood Number 5 was an immediate success upon its release, and by 1908 all major typewriter manufacturers had switched to visible writing machines.

Another design feature was the use of the QWERTY keyboard, established by Christopher Sholes. The QWERTY keyboard takes its name from the first six letters of its top row of letters. Remington's competitors frequently claimed that Sholes created a confusing keyboard so that typists would be forced to type slowly. Slow typing, they argued, would prevent Sholes's faulty keys from jamming. However, Sholes actually designed his keyboard to prevent jamming and to improve typing speed. Sholes had noticed that keys often locked when two adjacent type bars were pressed one after the other. He took the most common letter pairs (such as th and ed) and placed them so that their type bars were not next to each other. Because jamming with such an arrangement would be less likely to occur, typists could type as fast as they were able. Other keyboard designs have been proposed, but none has ever become popular—even on keyboards where jamming is no longer an issue.

Thomas Edison invented the first electric typewriter in 1872. Electric typewriters use power from an electric motor to hit the type bars against the paper. Consequently, the typist does not have to press the keys as hard, which results in faster typing. Edison's machine evolved into the ticker-tape printer once used by the New York Stock Exchange. The ticker-tape printer allowed stock prices to be printed on a moving tape by means of a telegraph. Electric typewriters did not come into popular use until 1960. These machines used a type ball that replaced the individual type bars. (Type balls had initially appeared in the 1880s but did not catch on at the time.)

Besides greatly increasing office productivity, the invention of the typewriter played an important role in opening up new fields of employment for women. During the 1800s, the only jobs available to most women were in shops or factories, where hours were long and conditions were often unsafe. The Young Woman's Christian Association in New York was concerned about the work conditions of women who labored in sweatshops. They thought that typewriters might offer a solution. In 1881, they offered a typing class to eight women, who were immediately offered jobs upon graduation. Soon, business schools across the United States and England were offering typing programs. Office work offered poor women a way to avoid factory work and allowed middle-class women a way to become independent. In 1880, only 5 percent of clerical office workers were female. By 1900, this figure had climbed to 75 percent. However, the typewriter eventually came to be seen as a symbol of gender inequality in the workplace. Women were traditionally employed in low-skilled positions such as secretaries and assistants while men worked as managers and executives.

Today, the typewriter has been almost entirely replaced by the personal computer. However, the keyboards of computers reflect many of the design elements of typewriters. For instance, they still make use of the QWERTY keyboard and the shift key.


Further Reading


Adler, Michael H. The Writing Machine. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973.

Flatow, Ira. They All Laughed... From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Hooper, Meredith. Everyday Inventions. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1972.

Richards, G. Tilghman. The History and Development of Typewriters. 2nd ed. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1964.


"Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing: A Short History of Typing." The Learning Company, Inc., 1999.

Rehr, Darryl. "The Typewriter."


As typewriter sales began to rise, dozens of companies eager to make a quick profit jumped into the industry. Some of the machines were designed to suit customers with specific needs. For example, the Virotyp typewriter could be worn on the user's wrist like a watch, and the Trebla typewriter was small enough to be carried in a pocket. The Electric Blick typewriter allowed users to type on paper up to 3 feet (91 cm) wide. Other typewriters seemed more suited to separate gullible purchasers from their money. For instance, Cary Writing Gloves were offered as an alternative for people intimidated by machinery. This "typewriter" consisted of a pair of rubber gloves with raised letters on the fingertips, knuckles, and other portions of the hand. The user was instructed to wear the gloves and coat them with ink. Then he or she could "type" by pressing the appropriate letters against a piece of paper.

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The Development of the Automatic Writing Machine: The Typewriter

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The Development of the Automatic Writing Machine: The Typewriter