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The Revolution Of The Typewriter History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The invention of the typewriter was one of the greatest turning points in history. Writing, a previously laborious task, was made immensely easier. The typewriter benefited countless clergymen, editors, and writers who were all “obliged to undergo the drudgery of the pen.” [1] It brought convenience and productivity to people everywhere. Even more important, however, was its impact on businesses and society. Businesses were able to grow and advance in unparalleled ways because of this newfound speed in writing. This speed had been impossible to achieve by hand, but because of the Sholes-Glidden typewriter, it became the driving force in nearly every company’s growth. The Sholes-Glidden typewriter, however, was not the first typewriter to be made, nor was it the first to be faster than hand-writing-it was simply the first commercially successful typewriter. As a matter of fact, the typewriter’s origins can be traced way back to a time before any man had ever dreamt of a keyboard.

Ever since the first written language was created, words had to be meticulously copied by hand, stroke-for-stroke, word-for-word, copied and recopied again and again in order to make a single copy or write down a single record. Just one error could cause the whole page or tablet to be rewritten. In fact, the writing process was so arduous that there were people-scribes-whose lives were dedicated just to writing and copying. They were honored and renowned, too, just because of how difficult writing was. Despite the difficulty, writing was an integral part of human progression. By the mid-1400s, people had already gotten tired of writing’s difficulty and looked for new ways to reduce this labor. The result was the printing press, the first invention that revolutionized the world of writing. [2] Following this success, humans began seeking for even more ways to improve writing and make it easier. The next major revolution in writing came in 1657 in the form of William Petty’s writing machine. In the machine’s patent, Charles I described it as a machine that:

“…might be learnt in an hour’s time, and of great advantage to lawyers, scriveners,

merchants, scholars, registars, clerks, etcetera; it saving the labour of examination,

discovering or preventing falsification, and performing the business of writing-as

with ease and speed-so with privacy.” [3] 

Even though Petty’s invention was really just a machine that wrote with two pens at once, Charles I’s description would describe the function and utility of a typewriter perfectly. In 1714, nearly sixty years later, Henry Mill created the next notable typewriter. In the patent granted to him by Queen Anne, Mill’s typewriter was described as:

“…an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, singly or progressively one after the other, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed on paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print…the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing…” [4] 

Unlike Petty’s two-pen writing machine, Mill’s machine much more closely resembled a typewriter. Unfortunately, not one model of this typing machine remains-not even a diagram or illustration of it.

Invented in 1829, William Austin Burt’s Typographer became the first American writing machine. [5] Burt’s Typographer held its letters along a frame the shape of a semi-circle. A person could type on this Typographer by bringing a letter to the turning point using a wheel. Then, a lever would bring the type to the surface of the paper, creating a character on the paper. This, however, was a very slow process-even slower than hand-writing. As proved in a letter to his wife, Burt’s Typographer was also very prone to spelling errors. [6] Despite the flaws, John Sheldon, editor of the Michigan Gazette, saw potential in the typographer. He even went so far as to write to Andrew Jackson, the president at the time. However, Sheldon was not able to come up with enough funds to manufacture the Typographer, and the typographer was brought to a premature end. Even though Sheldon’s letter was describing Burt’s Typographer, it accurately predicted the impact of the eventual typewriter when it stated that the writing machine “will be ranked with the most novel, useful, and pleasing inventions of this age.” [7] Following Burt, many inventors tried to create their own typing machines. Their designs differed greatly, ranging from piano-like keyboards to large balls, from spinning designs to table-top designs like the ones we have today. [8] None of these inventions had any real impact like that of Burt’s, and, as a result, their inventors’ names and faces became lost in the depths of history.

In 1831, another notable typewriter emerged, born in a time of much tension between the North and the South. Originally built as a hobby by John Pratt, the “Pterotype” would eventually become the inspiration for the first commercially successful typewriter. [9] Because taking out patents was extremely difficult for a Southerner during the Civil War, Pratt eventually decided to finish his invention in London, where he took out a provisional British patent in 1864. His Pterotype aroused much interest and speculation in many English citizens. [10] In fact, the machine was so profound that when Pratt returned to America at the end of the Civil War, he found an editorial, “Type Writing Machine”, written in Scientific American that described his machine as

“A machine by which it is assumed that a man may print his thoughts twice as fast as he can write them, and with the advantage of the legibility, compactness and neatness of print, has lately been exhibited before the London Society of Arts by the inventor, Mr. Pratt…The subject of typewriting is one of the interesting aspects of the near future. Its manifest feasibility and advantage indicate that the laborious and unsatisfactory performance of the pen must, sooner or later, become obsolete for general purposes”. [11] 

This description very accurately presents the advantages of typewriting machines even today. Unfortunately for Pratt, by the time he had been granted U.S. Patent No.81000 for his “Pterotype”, Charles Latham Sholes had already been granted a patent for his typing machine. Because of this patent timing, Soles is still given credit today for the first commercially successful typing machine. [12] 

Also known as “the father of the typewriter”, Charles Latham Sholes is often given the credit for inventing the first typewriter in history. [13] While this is not true, the Sholes-Glidden typewriter was indeed the first truly successful typewriter. Sholes lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin by the local Kleinsteuber machine shop, a shop he frequented with his friends Samuel W. Soule and Carlos Glidden. In July 1867, Sholes came across the article in Scientific America describing Pratt’s “Pterotype”. Inspired by this “Type Writing Machine”, Sholes set out to make his own machine, saying that Pratt’s machine was too complex. [14] Through a great deal of experimenting and inventing, Sholes and his friends were finally able to make a machine that was able to print one letter: W. [15] While this would seem to be very trivial when compared to the achievements of others before them, Soles and his friends were thrilled at this little achievement of theirs.

After much painstaking trial and error, Sholes and his friends were finally able to create a machine that could type the whole alphabet. This machine was so significant because it was the first type writing machine that could type text faster than one could write with pen (Sholes had his typewriter patented before Pratt’s, which could also type faster than one could write). [16] He named his new typewriting machine the Type-Writer after the title of the article that had originally inspired him. [17] With his new machine, Sholes wrote to a man named James Densmore for support. Densmore was very interested in Sholes’s writing machine-so much so that he immediately agreed to pay a hefty $600 in return for a share of the profits. He also stayed with the project, constantly pushing Soles to create the perfect machine. [18] Due to the end of the Civil War, the Remington Arms Company, a factory previously charged with the manufacturing of guns and sewing machines (for uniforms), now found itself idle and full of empty space. With this extra space, Sholes and Densmore were able to manufacture 1,000 Type-Writers-1,000 Type-Writers that revolutionized the world of writing and began the industry of the typewriter. [19] 

The original Sholes-Glidden typewriter’s appearance was very different from that of more modern typewriters; it more closely resembled a sewing machine (the Remington Arms Company had manufactured sewing machines and guns during the war.) However, the lasting feature of the Sholes-Glidden typewriter was not its sewing machine-like appearance, but its keyboard layout. Instead of the usual A-Z keyboard layout of its time, the Sholes-Glidden typewriter was arranged in the format everyone is well-versed in today, the QWERTY keyboard layout. This layout was, in essence, designed to slow typists down and place commonly used keys far apart so as to prevent paper jams. [20] As the popularity and success of Sholes’s typewriter grew, other companies began to adopt the QWERTY layout as well. Today, nearly every keyboard is created in the QWERTY layout-a beautiful showcase of the Sholes-Glidden typewriter’s lasting impact.

Shortly after Sholes’s typewriter was released, another notable model, the Hammond model, was created by James B. Hammond. Seeing the terrible misfortune Pratt had in the timing of his patent, Hammond offered Pratt a cash payment as well as a royalty if Pratt consented to leaving the typewriter industry. [21] Then, using Pratt’s ideas and patents, Hammond “created” a typewriter that utilized the revolutionary idea of interchangeable type, or the “shift” button on today’s keyboards. [22] This new mechanism allowed for two sets of keys that could be swapped at the push of a button, allowing for typists to type with a far greater range of symbols and letters despite having a smaller amount of visible keys on the surface.

Due to a general misunderstanding of what a typewriter was, the Sholes-Glidden typewriter did not sell very well when it was first released. People often confused the typewriter with the age-old printing press, not realizing that the typewriter was a brand-new, breakthrough invention. When people began to understand the advantages of the typewriter, however, society was changed for the better in incredible ways. Typewriters’ unrivaled speed in producing text became incredibly valuable tools for authors and office workers, whose time writing was now cut in half. Despite the typewriter’s learning curve, everybody recognized that typewriters had much potential, as evidenced by Mark Twain’s letter to his own typewriter:

“I AM TRYING TTO GET THE HANG OF THIS NEW FFANGLED WRITING MACHINE, BUT AM NOT MAKING A SHINING SUCCESS OF IT. HOWEVER THIS IS THE FIRST ATTEMPT I EVER HAVE MADE &YET I PERCEIVETHAT I SHALL SOON &EASILY ACQUIRE A FINE FACILITY IN ITS USE. [23] 

As the aforementioned article in the Scientific American so accurately predicted, “”[l]egal copying, and the writing and delivering of sermons and lectures, not to speak of letters and editorials, will undergo a revolution as remarkable as that effected in books by the invention of printing.” [24] Everyone, no matter what occupation, was benefited by the typewriter. Everyday life was affected in tremendous ways. For example, with just fifty cents, personal letters were able to be printed out at incredible speeds, something entirely new to the general public. [25] 

Not only did they improve everyday life and improve workflow, typewriters created many new opportunities for women. Because of the typewriter’s ever-growing popularity in the late 1800s, women were given a new opportunity to enter business. [26] While women used to be limited to working in factories and sweatshops, typewriters gave them new opportunities for clerical work, which would pay much higher salaries and provide much safer working environments than factories. [27] Sholes himself soon acknowledged himself that his typewriter provided women with new freedoms, saying, “‘I do feel I have done something for the women who have always had to work so hard. This will enable them more easily to earn a living…whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter, it is obviously a blessing to mankind, and especially to womankind.” [28] Although Sholes certainly did not expect the typewriter to have such a great impact on the lives of women, his invention allowed countless women to earn livings as typists, and, most importantly, gave them a springboard from which they would be able to progress to even higher positions in society. [29] 

The typewriter is one of the most revolutionary inventions in history. It brought speed to writers, productivity to offices, and convenience to workers. It brought jobs to women, letters to friends, and computers to people. Nevertheless, the journey in the creation of the typewriter was a long and arduous one. It spanned over hundreds and hundreds of years, with every new invention adding on to the previous one. Nonetheless, the typewriter finally met its purpose as it made its way into the lives of every man and woman. Today, everyone uses a keyboard of some sort. Nearly every one of those keyboards is formatted in Sholes’s QWERTY layout, and every one of those keyboards includes Hammond’s shift key. The type-writing machine, though very much forgotten today, still lives in nearly everything man-made, from the keyboards on our laptops to the text on our magazines produced by type-writing machines all around the world.


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