Before 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.
The 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.
Remington 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.
Other 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.
After 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. The 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
I 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?