Cheryl St.John: The Typewriter! A Revolutionary New Machine

cheryl_stjohn_logo.jpgBefore the Civil War, most businesses were small with only a few dozen employees, and a clerk was most often a young fellow starting out in a business by keeping records and transcribing letters. The 1870s and 1880s brought the growth of corporations and trusts and employment for tens of thousands of workers. Management and labor divisions were created, and paperwork flourished. None of my research showed this, but I couldn’t help wondering if the growth in record keeping was also partly due to the influx of former slaves suddenly being on payrolls.


The idea behind the typewriter applied Johann Gutenberg’s concept of movable type developed for the printing press to a machine for individual use. Descriptions of such mechanical writing machines date as far back as the early eighteenth century. In 1714, a patent something like a typewriter was granted to a man named Henry Mill in England, but no example of Mills’ invention survives.


In 1829, William Burt from Detroit, Michigan patented his typographer which had characters arranged on a rotating frame. However, Burt’s machine, and many of those that followed it, were cumbersome, hard to use, unreliable and often took longer to produce a letter than writing it by hand.


typistThe typewriter began at Kleinsteuber’s Machine Shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1868. A local publisher-politician-philosopher named Christopher Latham Sholes and his fellow workers spent hours tinkering on a machine to automatically number the pages in books. Someone suggested a similar device to print the entire alphabet. An article from Scientific American was passed around and a machine that printed the alphabet resulted. It even had the QWERTY keyboard we still use today. The prototype was eventually sent to Washington as the required Patent Model.


Sholes licensed his patent to famous gun maker Remington & Sons of Ilion, New York. In 1874, the Remington Model 1, the first commercial typewriter, was placed on the market. No more than 5,000 were sold, but the invention founded a worldwide industry and brought mechanization to time-consuming office work. The original still exists, locked in a vault at the Smithsonian. Probably a couple hundred or so survived time, and those are valued from $1000 for a black model to $5000 for an ornately decorated model on a treadle stand.


sholes_and_glidden-1874Remington and his sons were already in the sewing machine business, as well, and in fact the early typewriter models with stands look like sewing machines with the same iron scrollwork. The Remington type writing machine was first displayed to the public at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 along with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Heinz Ketchup, the Wallace-Farmer Electric Dynamo, precursor to the electric light, and Hires Root Beer.


The Franklin Typewriter was a make popular around the turn of the century. Its type bars stood erect at the front of the machine and swung down to the platen. Its radical semi-circular keyboard characterized this down strike machine. Many survive today.


smith_premier_2_levelsOther models were created and patented over the years, some which struck the back of the paper to print. Some had two complete sets of letters – uppercase and lowercase. Funny that double-keyboard promoters thought it was confusing to have to press two keys when you wanted capitals. The Smith family of Smith Premier later became Smith-Corona. It was the longest-lived name in the typewriter business.


franklin_curvedAfter this practical invention became widely available, typing became a more specialized skill, requiring training other than that of a company manager moving through the ranks. New positions developed in the forms of stenographers, file clerks and typists, and the jobs were quickly seen as women’s work. In 1881 the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA) offered typing training.


Based on Sholes’ mechanical typewriter, the first electric typewriter was built by Thomas Alva Edison in the United States in 1872, but the widespread use of electric typewriters was not common until the 1950s. remington_upstrikeThe electronic typewriter, a typewriter with an electronic “memory” capable of storing text, first appeared in 1978.


So there’s everything you always wanted to know about typewriters, but didn’t think to ask. I always enjoy learning that something I thought was a more recent discovery had actually been around for far longer.



1714 The first patent for a ‘writing machine’ was given to Henry Mill of England

1829 William Burt of the US patented his typographer machine

1868 Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule patent type writing machine

1872 Thomas Alva Edison builds first electric typewriter

1873 Remington & Sons mass produces the Sholes & Glidden typewriter

1978 Olivetti Company and the Casio Company develop electronic typewriter


stjohn.jpgI did my first writing on a Smith-Corona portable. When I think back on the changes I make by using White Out – what a nightmare. But it was easier than writing by hand, and the finished pages were far easier to read. When I got an IBM Selectric, I thought I had hit the big time. No more White Out because it had an eraser tape! Whoo hoo! We didn’t realize that those were the dinosaurs of the inventions to come, did we? Hey, they were better than anything we’d known previously.


Author and friend Victoria Alexander collects old typewriters, and she has some really awesome specimens in her office. Will anyone else admit to having written or typed letters on a standard typewriter? Do you remember the strikers getting crossed when you went too fast?

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44 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: The Typewriter! A Revolutionary New Machine”

  1. Well Cheryl,
    If I have to date myself it may as well be with my confession of having used a type writer “a lot” . lol
    Amazing how we have progressed from those days. 🙂 Yet we’re still typing on our keyboards.. And just as badly where I am concerned. lollol

  2. Hi Cheryl!
    Oh, yes, I will admit to starting on a typewriter and the keys did get crossed a lot. And those messy typewriter ribbons, black ink would rub off and get everywhere, and if you dropped one it would unspool all over the desk! Then in one office we went on to golf ball typewriters that SELF CORRECTED. Bliss!
    My first novel was typed on an Amstrad and I thought that was pretty cool at the time…
    Great post,
    All best,

  3. When I was in college, I did some office work–on an old manual typewriter. Not that I’m that old 🙂 but I’m sure you understand the term ‘funding’. Or lack thereof. And yes, the keys and I got really crossed with each other sometimes!

    Oh, those old ball typewriters. I loved that you could change the font by changing the ball. What fun.

    I’ve run the gammut with typewriters/word processors. I’m so delighted we’re where we are now. My oh so excellent spelling ability (NOT) works sooooo much better now. My fingers love it too! 😉

  4. I did take ‘typing’ class in High School on honest to goodness typewriters. They were electric, but not self correcting.
    Somewhere, I still have an electric typewriter (self correcting) in the basement because from time to time, some stupid government form has to be done on a typewriter instead of a computer printer.

    I’m a former girl scout–and I can be prepared!

  5. (Sorry I’ve been absent lately- deep in revisions)

    I can remember a tall gray behemoth of a typewriter when I was growing up. I’d swear it was an Underwood that my dad had. I played with it all the time. I can remember one summer me and my sister and my friends my cousin babysat playing newspaper office in the basement and using that old typewriter to “type up” our articles and news stories. I had to be 10 or younger. I loved that typewriter, even when the strikers crossed and locked with each. I always got ink all over me trying to fix it and work under the “hood” to straighten out the reel to reel ribbons or the round keys that stuck.

    Now that you’ve got me thinking about it…I need to ask my mom if they still have it. I would LOVE to have it for a decoration, if nothing else- esp. if I ever get to have my own writer’s cave.

    I later remember using my aunt’s Brother typewriter. It was the first one I’d ever seen that had the correction tape. I used to play with that one, too on hot lazy summer days, making up stories. LOL

    And then, the Christmas I was 17, my parents got me a Smith Corona word processor/typewriter with a couple of font daisywheels, the huge ink cartridges and correction tape wheels. It had the LCD screen for the word processor mode and a disk drive for saving my work on.

    My dad had an old college typing course book that he gave me to learn how to type with. It was huge, orange, and made to be propped up and so I set to work, practicing QWERTY and all the other exercises in the book. I didn’t ever get so good to be a professional typist(don’t have a wpm count or anything), but I don’t do too shabby once my fingers hit the keys and the words start to flow. I suppose that’s what matters! LOL

    Of course, eventually the wp messed up and anything I tried to print out from the disks came out in “alien” script- as I called it. Perhaps it went into overload trying to print up all the things I’d typed..I don’t know. Not long after that I started to learn to use a computer with a keyboard and have been ever since.

    Thanks for sharing the history of the typewriter today. Brought back a lot of good memories for me.

  6. Hello Cheryl,
    Yes, I remember the standard typewriters. My grandmother had me type over 200 recipes on that bad boy. I don’t remember the letters getting crossed though. I could never type that fast on that old machine. My fingers weren’t strong enough back then. However when I got to high school, they were electric. Thanks to progress. I enjoyed learning about typewriters today.

    I just started reading this blog and I love it. I can’t wait to read it everyday and find out what new and interesting facts I’m going to be learning about today. Please tell your fellow authors that I’m hooked. Thanks.

    Have a great day.

  7. HI Cheryl!

    I, too, typed out my very first manuscript — and it wasn’t on an electric typewriter, either. Amazing. Loved this post, Cheryl — full of incredible informatioin for all of us who use a keyboard everyday of our lives.

  8. Wow, there are a lot of typists up early today! Thanks for stopping by the Junction for your daily fix. I am so comfortable in the company of those who remember their days on a manual typewriter.

    Howdy, Carol L, you’re a sight for sore eyes.

    Carol T, I too recall having black fingers from getting the ribbon back where it was supposed to be – especially if it wound around the inside of the case. I have three old ribbon tins on a little shelf in my office. I should have taken a picture of those. I still can.

    *lizzie, I never used a typewriter with the ball – sounds like oodles of fun to change fonts.

    Leave it to you to be prepared, Robyn! I had a word-processing typewriter for several years. I used it to address cards and envelopes and print out one page newsletters. It was a hassle to format it, as I recall. I gave it to my mom, and she still uses it on occasion when she types up poems or little notes.

  9. Taryn, you have such lovely memories of your youth. Your stories reminded me that on my old Smith-Corona, the a struck above all the other letters and often stuck. I was forever reaching in to pluck it out. A line of type was unique with that a poking up above the other letters. LOL

    I taught myself to type when I was a kid and have never done it correctly. The typing teacher threw up her hands. I can go a mile a minute, but it’s all wrong, and my hands aren’t where they’re supposed to be on the keyboard. But I’ve been writing stories and books since I was about 12, and I can take on anyone in an IM speed competition. LOL

  10. Do you still have any of those recipes, Roberta? My cousin recently typed up all of my grandmother’s recipes and made them into a cookbook. I would love to have a copy of that.

    Karen, we are definitely on an intimate basis with our keyboards, aren’t we? I wear one out about every two years. And they usually have no vowels remaining on the keys after the first year. I would love to hear from someone else who wears off the letters. So far no one else admits to that.

  11. Everyone had to take typing in high school and you had to have strong fingers to make them work! The keys were sticky and the type writer itself was ancient looking. And the keys would cross when I tried to type fast. The first novel I wrote (which are in a dark, dark closet) was typed on an old Big green typewriter, then I moved up to the kind that had the erasing gizmo, and finally I managed to get a computer and writing was so much more enjoyable! LOL

    Interesting post! Thanks Cheryl!

  12. Admit it? You’re kidding. You mean there are people reading this blog who DIDN’T start out on a manual typewriter?

    When I was in highschool, our typing classroom had about three electric typewriters and it was considered a ‘treat’ to be allowed to use them. I remember the weird, WHACK fast strike of the letter on the paper being very scary.

  13. LOL…I’m talking to my mom right now- it wasn’t an Underwood- It was a Royal and she said she’ll look for it, but thinks she might have put it out for clean up week years ago.

  14. I also remember in college, seeing a typewriter sitting there…without a person…typing a letter. That must be the memory thing. They’d program a letter into the typewriter then stick in the paper and the machine, which looked exactly like any other typewriter, would just busily type away. I remember being slack-jawed with amazement.

    We’ve come a lot way from that, huh?

  15. And, this is almost typing related. I read last night that Michael Nesmith of the Monkees…his mother invented Liquid Paper (now better known as White-Out). when she died Michael inherited 50 MILLION dollars from her.

  16. Yep I learned to type on an old typewriter. In fact, I made all 3 of our kids use my stand-up typing books to learn to type correctly. They are all extremely fast typists now.

    I also typed ALL of Dennis’ college papers on an old electric typewriter with NO correction tape. I remember being up all night retyping the same pages over & over because I would make a mistake at the end of the page! I love my computer!!

  17. Wow, does this bring back memories! I do still have my old SC electric, although I haven’t needed to use it for quite some time. As a writer, though, I have a fear of letting go of it!

  18. I had an electric typewriter for years for one adn only one purpose…taxes. I kept the books for the country school where my children attended and I needed to turn in quarterly reports and annual stuff and it HAD to be typed. So about five times a year, I’d drag it out and type up those forms. Maddening.
    The year came when I could no longer buy a typewriter ribbon for it…

  19. Of course I typed on a standard typewriter. I still have it. It was my dad’s and when he passed I couldn’t part with it. I wrote many a report on that, and remember cursing the white-out. Boy, I thought the correction tape was the best of all inventions back then. And yes, I haven’t thought about it in years, but if you were relatively fast, the keys would stick and knock into each other.
    Thanks for the memories!! How far we’ve come.

    Oh, and after the typewriter, I shelled out $800.00 for a word processor.. do you remember those? I wrote my first ms on it, a few years before we got a PC.

  20. Cheryl, I took typing as a class in high school and we used Remington typewriters. The first ones didn’t have the eraser tape. In fact, I remember that only came along in my senior year. Like you, I thought that was the best thing since sliced bread. And yes, I remember how the strikers used to get stuck when I typed too fast. That was annoying. But I loved typing. It was lots of fun.

    I remember buying an old typewriter in a garage sale after I got out of school. It was the only typewriter I owned. Getting an Apple computer in my late 30’s, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I loved that computer even though it had very little memory. I thought it was wonderful. And that’s when I decided I wanted to write a book. I would’ve hated to type out a book on the typewriter. Ugh!

    Very interesting blog!

  21. Guilty as charged – my mother taught me early on (grade school age) to type and I did all my school reports on a portable which made the teachers very happy lol. I could never type on one of those again lol. I was told that was going to be my profession and ever dutiful daughter went along with it so I was a secretary for 18 years. I remember when we got a magetic card typewriter – one of the first automatic typewriters – I took classes for a week and there was a ton of memorization that went along with it – but if you did things right you could set the typewriter on automatic and it would type by itself lol. It went obsolete as soon as home computers started showing up. Just makes you wonder what the future will bring.

  22. What memories this post brings back – stand up typing books, stuck keys, electric erasors. Once I was typing a letter for my boss and I had to erase something and put the erasor right through the page.

  23. What a great post, Cheryl!! I fell in love with typewriters in junior high. The librarian would let me type up new book labels and cards—I just loved the feel of my fingers on the keys 🙂 She even let me type my research papers—which was a challange, being so prone to typoes *g* That was one reason I didn’t think I’d ever be a writer–no way could I type 400 pages error free!! Errors kept me from getting those Word-per-minute pins in typing class in high school—oh how I wanted that 60wpm pin!! I’m lucky to get through five pages without at least five missing words *g* I see them when I proof read, but they are invisible on the page–I LOVE my critique partners 😉

  24. You called the first typing machines “dinosaurs.”
    I guess makes me a dinosaur “herder” or some such!
    My first exposure to typewriters was my Typing I
    class at Jefferson Davis HS in 1952/1953. Been
    through the ranks of progression since then, I
    even still have some of the carbon copies of the
    newspaper column I used to write! Those were the days which I definitely do not wish to repeat! I
    love my computer!

    Pat Cochran

  25. LIke most everyone else, I learned on a manual in high school. There were three electrics that we got to take turns using. (I went to the same high school as Mary C.)
    Didn’t see anyone mention typewriter erasers. They were used before white out. My first job was a government job where everything had to be at least triplicate. There was a copy machine, but the forms had to be cargon copies. A piece of cardboard was kept to place between the carbons while erasing the mistakes.
    The typing tests that I took while looking for emplyment were taken on a manual. Most required at least 55 wpm if I remember right.

  26. Hi Cheryl! I remember the strikers getting crossed, LOL. And I loved my electric typewriter with the cartridge white-out. Computers are better, of course, except they take up much more time in maintaining than anyone ever figured.

    I’m surprised how early Edison invented the electric typewriter.

    Guess what? I finished reading the anthology–THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS!:-) I loved your twins in A BABY BLUE CHRISTMAS! You have a real knack for writing families. You always have–I remember reading one of your contemporaries–THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and enjoying the way you wrote about the kids! 🙂

  27. Sue, I had a visual of a typing eraser when I read that! A flat round eraser on wheel, with a black brush to flick away the residue. Is that what you meant? Wow, blast from the past.

    I went to school to listen to third grade speeches, and you guys were chatty while I was away! How lovely to see everyone here. We actually have spring weather and sunshine. The snow is melting, so it’s a great day!

  28. Linda, after my IMB Selectric, which was old and in and out of the repair shop, I bought an Apple at a pawn shop. It was the excat model that all the public schools were using at the time. I paid $100 for it. Noe hard drive – everything had to be saved on floppies. I re-wrote my first published book on it and discovered the wonders of editing with word processing! Halleluiah!

    My first several books were written on that baby and printed with a dot matrix printer, that I had to tear the feed strips off the sides and tear each sheet apart. I know Rain Shadow and Land of Dreams were written on my old Apple.

    My lovely wonderful editor at the time, Margaret Marbury, was so thankful when I got a new PC and an inkjet printer!

    We certainly have come a long way baby. I have a lazer printer for printing manuscripts now, and it shoots the pages out like lightning. A whole book prints in just a couple of minutes.

    With that dot matrix, it printed line by line and scrolled and line by line, etc. and then over heated and would have to cool down to restart. It took a couple of hours to print out a book.

    We are blessed by technology.

  29. Kate, thank you so much for your praise for my stories! I appreciate hearing that you like the children in my books. I had fun writing The Magnificent Seven – that was a great series to be a part of. I made myself laugh at the antics of those ornery kids–do you recall the twin who rolled the pickup into the pond? My second daughter rolled my NEIGHBOR’S car backward out of her drive and across the street into another driveway. The car stopped just short of a parked car, and then started to roll back to the street. My next door neighbor jumped in and stopped it before it did any damage or she got hurt. So a lot of my stories are tweaks on real life at ye olde loonie bin.


  30. Yes, I do remember those rascal kids! LOL on it being based on real life. That’s why your characters ring so true. Montana Mavericks was a great series with a lot of great writers! 🙂 Phew on your real daughter escaping that close call!

  31. Hi Ruth Ann! Wikipedia says the QUERTY arrangement of letters was to avoid the clash of striker keys–those strikers crossing and getting stuck while typing. Gee, imagine how it must have been so much worse before Sholes fixed the set up!

  32. Fabulous post, Cheryl. I was so furious when my parents made me go to summer school just before high school to learn to type! But I’ve thanked them ever since. I even made money in college typing papers for guys who never learned.

    Oh I was on the moon when I got my first electric typewriter with the eraser tape.

    Here’s something for ya’ll to try: write down the three rows of keyboard letters from memory!

    Hugs to all…

  33. Hey, Cheryl, what a fun post! Brought back a ton of memories. I think I used every design of typewriter mentioned. I sure remember the ones where you had to put the cardboard in to erase copies. Before White Out there was a white opaque paper (kinda like carbon paper, but white and a whole lot heavier) we used, so we’d have to put a piece of this paper between the keys (especially the old IBM Selectric)and the mistake, type over it, then retype the right letter. It was so heavy that you’d have to type the letter and backspace a dozen times some times for it to be dark enough, so you didn’t see the mistake! I used a long carriage typewriter, and it’d take so long to return that my strikers (I called them keys on those days LOL) would stack on top of one another, stopping the carriage from returning. I used the memory typewriters, too. Originally, you could type up to 6 or 8 pages, maybe 10, and when you were ready it’d automatically type your pages, stopping so I could insert more paper (the best I recall). Wasn’t long until they went to one that produced a memory for 14 pages and had a little one line screen. I left one of the best jobs I ever had at a major law firm when the “office administrator” announced we were going to something called a … and, I didn’t stay around long enough to learn anything about a “computer”, as I’d just conquered the memory typewriter. Of course, in my next job I had to learn a “computer” anyway. The original word program I learned was Word Star. There was no pull down screens, everything had to be coded in by memory. Anybody remember that antiquated program? Thanks, Cheryl, for the great memories. I can’t even imagine writing a book and not having the “tools” we have today. I make way too many errors! Hugs, P

  34. Loved this, Cheryl. I wrote my first four novels on an antique Smith Corona. I had to rewind the ribbon by hand every time it got to the end. Because I wasn’t a fast typist, I would pay somebody else $1 a page to type a final copy. That added up to a lot. I went from that old typewriter to an Apple IIe, which didn’t even have a hard drive, but at least I could make my own final copy with NO WHITEOUT. What a long way we’ve come!

  35. Phyliss, those little erasing papers came in a flat slide-out plastic container-mine was aqua blue. I remember it well!

    It has been so much fun reading all of your stories about the early days of typing. Thanks to all of you for stopping by today!

    I had that Apple IIe also Elizabeth. I should have kept a few floppies to show the young kids. All of my early books were on floppy disks and I sent them to Harlequin that way.

  36. I took one year of typing in high school and we didn’t have electric type writers. I think they had electric type writers for the second year students. I also have a Smith-Corona type writer stored away in the to of my closet. Hey you never know you may need it.

  37. Had the old style black typewriter. My family got rid of it, so I’m not sure what kind it was. Still have the Smith-Corona portable in the gold case. Then we got the Selectric. Can’t count the number of times the keys got stuck together. Now I’ve got an Apple and a laptop from work. It is truly easier to compose and edit on the computer, but I still prefer to use pen and paper when I’m laying out a project and planning.

  38. When I started writing back around 1970, I used an old portable Smith-Corona as well. I was 13 yo and spent that summer teaching myself to type using the old green flip-over typing book. Determined to be an executive secretary as a career-choice, I applied for and went to a technical vocational high school much to my parents’ chagrin. When normal teens were learning chemisty, algebra and physics, I was taking filing, economics and business law. And typing. On an old manual Olivetti. Yes, I already knew how to type, but in my eagerness to learn at home, I hadn’t followed the exercises thoroughly so although I was very fast, my error-rate pulled my wpm down. A lot. I clocled in at 65 wpm before I graduated in 75.

    Instead of working in an office, I decided on a life of adventure and signed up with the Cdn Armed Forces as a teletype operator. Yup, more typing but on this big honking machine more like a key-punch operator. By the time our eqpt was updated to computer monitors, my speed had increased to over 80 wpm, errors included. *sigh*

    So, there’s really no excuse for me not to write a couple thousand words of my wip per day because that’s only a couple hours worth. Well, once I’m on a roll and know what I’m going to write. 🙂

    As a matter of fact, I’ve had my laptop for only 2.5 yrs but I’ve typed 5 ms’s on it and can’t one-finger if I tried because the letters are worn off the most commonly-used keys.

    And yes, I collect old typewriters, too. I have a few of the old clunkers boxed in my quonset. No, I don’t know why I save them, but they’re a link with my past.

  39. My mom has a few old beauties, including an enormous office Hermes that used to be mine, nicknamed “Goliath.” I typed my journal on it for years.

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