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article number 229
article date 04-25-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Christopher Sholes Changes our Office Life … Invents the Typewriter
by James H. Collins

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention. Original chapter title, “WRITING BY MACHINE.”

ONE July day in 1867, an odd genius came into the Milwaukee telegraph office and asked the chief operator for a sheet of carbon-paper.

Now, carbon-paper was almost a curiosity then. About the only use that had been found for it was to make several copies quickly of newspaper despatches as telegraphers took them from the wire and wrote them down in longhand.

The chief operator knew this visitor. He was Christopher Latham Sholes, a man already famous in Milwaukee for the many things he had done. At various times he had been a printer, a newspaper-publisher, an editor, a member of the Wisconsin legislature, commissioner of public works, and postmaster of Milwaukee. Now he was the collector of customs in that city. He was an inventor, could tell a good story, make a good pun, quote poetry, play a game of chess. He was tall and slender, somewhat frail, with long flowing hair, and clear bright eyes that had a far-away look. Modest, gentle, kindly, a stranger would not have thought him a fighter. Yet he would turn like a lion to defend right against might, and all the more quickly if the right happened to be weak or getting the worst of it.

Christopher Latham Sholes, “Father of the Typewriter.” Courtesy Underwood Typewriter Company.

We want to know this man Sholes at the beginning of our story, because he was the father of the typewriter. And the telegraph operator, too, because he was present at the very beginning of the first real typewriter. His name was Charles E. Weller, a backwoods lad with little schooling, but an enormous reader. Working first in a printing-office, he had become a telegraph messenger, learned telegraphy and newspaper reporting, and was now studying shorthand, hoping to become a court reporter.

What did Sholes want with a sheet of carbon-paper? Young Weller was curious. He knew that Sholes had already invented a way to print the names and addresses of subscribers on the margins of newspapers for mailing, also a machine that would number dollar bills or tickets from one upward, or print the page numbers in blank books.

“Come up to my office to-morrow about noon, Charlie,” said Sholes, as he went out, “and I’ll show you something that may be interesting.”

Next day young Weller was on hand. The inventor still edited a newspaper up-stairs over the telegraph office. Charlie expected to see something new, and he did.

With some pieces of pine board, an old telegraph-key, a sheet of glass, and other odds and ends, Sholes had whittled out and assembled together a little piece of mechanism which he was showing to some gentlemen. Taking his borrowed sheet of carbon-paper and a thin sheet of white paper, he slipped them into his machine, against the piece of glass. Moving the paper slowly with one hand, he tapped the telegraph-key with the other. On the end of the telegraph-key was a letter “w” cut in brass. Sholes’s little device was a “writing-machine.” It wrote only the one letter over and over, like this:


But he said that with thirty or forty such keys, each having a letter or figure, he could make a machine that would write anything.

He had it clearly pictured in his mind and gave a lot of technical details which Weller, who did not know much about mechanics, found it hard to understand. All out of such a patched-up arrangement that wrote “wwwwwww”! But years later the little machine seemed so important that Weller built a model of it as nearly as he could. The original had disappeared.

: Sholes’s first, Rude, one-letter typewriter. Drawn from memory by Charles Weller.


Sholes was not the first inventor to conceive the idea of a machine that would write. As far back as the year 1714, an English water-works engineer named Henry Mill took out a patent for a machine which was said to “impress letters on paper as in writing.” Nothing more is known about it, however; nor about an “embossing machine” invented in France in 1784; nor of the first American attempt at a writing-machine, called a “typographer,” patented by a Mr. Burt, all records of which were destroyed in a great fire in Washington in 1836.

A Frenchman named Progin patented a “typographic machine or pen,” in which type-bars were used, a principle still found in the typewriter as we know it to-day. An American named Charles Thurber built a typewriter capable of actual work in 1843. It wrote very slowly, but Thurber added other useful principles—the carriage that holds the paper and slides along as a line is written, and the way of turning the paper when a line is done.

Several early inventors tried to build a typewriter that would raise letters on the paper, to be read by the blind. One of them, a Frenchman, Pierre Foucald, received a gold medal for such a machine in 1850—he was blind himself. Sympathy with the blind was the idea with which nearly every typewriter inventor started. Blind people were cut off from ordinary reading and writing, yet needed them so much! This sympathy started another American inventor, Alfred E. Beach, an odd genius too. He is remembered now as editor of The Scientific American.

Beach wanted to help the blind, too. Between 1847 and 1856, he built several writing-machines. They were mostly made of wood, as big as a bushel basket, but incorporated principles that are still used. Beach’s firm took out hundreds of patents for inventors, and that made a great lot of writing. Before Beach got very far, he saw that the real place for his writing-machine was in business offices, doing just such work as copying patent papers.

Thurber’s typewriter of 1843.

By this time there was keen rivalry between English and American writing-machine inventors—a race to see which country would build the first real typewriter. Technical editors on both sides of the ocean began to write about different machines and the ideas which inventors were working out. It is easy to imagine how warm the discussion grew when a promising typewriter was invented in London in 1866—but by an American living there, John Pratt.

Pratt’s machine had the whole alphabet on one plate. When its “A” key was pressed, that letter swung in place, a hammer hit it through the paper, and wrote the letter. It was the best device up to that time, and everybody talked about it. Some said the time would come—and soon, when a reporter with a writing-machine would take down speeches as fast as they were spoken. Why not, with the railroad, steamboat, sewing-machine, electric telegraph, revolving printing-press, and like wonders on every hand?

These arguments flew so thick and fast that in July, 1867, Alfred Beach wrote an article for his Scientific American, showing the great value of a practical typewriter, and foretold what it would do. He spoke as a typewriter inventor himself. So many records and legal papers and letters had to be written and copied as the world’s business grew, that pen-and-ink copyists could not keep pace with the work much longer. A successful typewriter meant a revolution almost as great as that caused by the invention of printing in the world of books.

Beach’s enthusiasm led him to predict that the schoolboy of the future would be taught to write only his name with a pen—everything else would be written by “playing on the literary piano.” That part of it did not come true, we know, but everything else did.

Specimen of machine-writing from Thurber’s “Chirographie,” 1845. Courtesy Underwood Typewriter Company.

When the real typewriter was finally born, it had several uncles as well as a father. One of them was Carlos S. Glidden, whom Sholes had told about his device for printing numbers. It made such a deep impression on Glidden that he helped to work it out. That gave Glidden another idea.

“If you can write numbers, why not letters ?“ he reasoned. Sholes did not seem to see the point, so Glidden showed him the article about the typewriter in The Scientific American. Sholes read it over and admitted that the idea was practical. But not Pratt’s machine.

“It is too complicated,” he objected, “and badly made. I know that I can build something better.”

“Why not let us do it together?” suggested Glidden, and Sholes agreed. They took in a third person, Samuel W. Soule, who was something of an inventor too, but more useful as a practical machinist. He could build a thing quickly after Sholes made the idea clear, and often improve it. In fact, he suggested something found to-day in nearly every typewriter; the principle of having all the type strike in the same spot, the principle of “converging type-bars.”

Glidden and Soule were the men to whom Sholes was showing his first one-letter model when Charlie Weller saw it. This model was built only a week after Sholes read Alfred E. Beach’s article. The inventor had studied previous typewriters to learn their good points and avoid bad ones. He had so clear an idea of what he wanted to do that the three partners started right in to build the first typewriter in a little Milwaukee machine-shop known as “Kleinsteuber’s.”


Charlie Weller was right on their heels. He knew court reporters had to write hundreds of pages of records by hand. This was drudgery, and it made reports of trials so costly that few people who went to law could afford them. A machine which would write legal papers quickly and cheaply seemed about the biggest thing he had ever heard of. If he became a court reporter, he wanted one, and he wanted one so badly that Sholes promised him the first machine that left the shop, to be tried in actual court reporting.

Court records were scant.

The work of building that first machine progressed slowly, because every part was strange to Kleinsteuber’s machinists. But Charlie Weller walked a couple of miles every day to see how the machine was coming along and watched its growth with breathless interest.

That was the only name they had for it then—just “the machine.” What should it be called? “Printing-machine,” said one, but the machine did not really print like a press. “Writing-machine,” said another, but that did not seem to fit either; for it did not really write. Finally, Sholes himself invented a name—the “typewriter.” A strange-sounding word then, but it came nearest to telling what the machine really did, and is now the common name wherever English is spoken, although in some other languages “writing-machine” is used instead.

The first “typewriter” was finished three or four months later, in the autumn of 1867. It did not look much like the compact typewriters of to-day, yet there was the movable carriage and the lever for turning the paper from line to line, and the converging type-bars, and even the keyboard. Indeed it was more like our typewriters than any writing-machine that had been invented before.

Patent office model of the machine patented July 14, 1866, by Sholes, Glidden, and Soule.

The keyboard was like that of a piano. The keys were of black-walnut wood, in two rows, with the letters and figures painted in white. The letters of the alphabet read from A to Z, the first half on the lower row of white keys, and the other half on the upper row of black keys. This machine printed only capital letters, but it had figures from 2 to 9. The letter “I” was used for the figure “1,” and the letter “O” for zero. There was also a comma, period, semicolon, hyphen, question mark, dollar-sign, and diagonal stroke.

Sholes and Soule soon saw that something was wrong with this keyboard. They were both printers. Letters in a printer’s case were arranged so that those most often used are nearest at hand instead of the way they follow one another in the alphabet. A printer would soon think of such a keyboard arrangement for a typewriter. Sholes and Soule worked out a four-bank keyboard, arranged as nearly like the printer’s case as possible. But they could not follow it exactly, because some of the keys clashed with others. By changing these keys to new positions they finally worked out a keyboard much like that of the modern typewriter.

Something else has lasted all these years. Step into any typewriter showroom to-day. The salesman will sit down at a typewriter and rattle off a sentence to show how well it works. That sentence is nearly always the same, and this is the reason. When Sholes’s first machine was ready to write, an exciting political campaign was in progress in Milwaukee. Almost the first sentence written was, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party,” and it is still used to show how typewriters work.


Charlie Weller got the first machine in January, 1868. By that time he had become a shorthand reporter in St. Louis, where the machine was sent. Lawyers were suspicious of shorthand. What did the stenographer write with his mysterious pothooks? They could not read them! So lawyers took scraps of testimony in longhand, and depended upon these and their memories for the record of a trial. Disputes as to what a witness had said were settled by the judge, who relied on his memory.

Charlie Weller joined the only firm in St. Louis that did shorthand reporting in the courts. There was not enough legal work to keep him and his partners busy. So they took down lectures, sermons, and political speeches in shorthand for the newspapers. Some months before there had been a long impeachment trial, and one of Weller’s partners had reported it in shorthand. He had never written out his notes, however.

Soon after Weller received his strange typewriting-machine, the report of this trial was needed. He wrote it out on the machine. This first typewriter wrote only capital letters, remember, and it wrote these out of line. The letters often “stuttered” or stuck. The lines were unequally spaced. A typewriter ribbon could not be bought; a roll of silk ribbon was bought at a dry-goods store, soaked several hours in writing ink, hung up overnight to dry, and placed in the machine. But this first typewritten report of a trial in court answered all purposes, because it was used as “copy” for the printer.

Modern Elliot-Fisher Book Typewriter. Courtesy Elliot-Fisher Company.

The first typewriter was followed by others. In their little Milwaukee machine-shop Sholes, Glidden, and Soule began five years of change, experiment, and improvement. After a better keyboard had been worked out, they changed the wooden keys to metal rods and set their type-bars in steel bearings. The paper had rested in a flat frame against which the type struck in writing. For this they substituted a rubber roller. Machine after machine was built, and each seemed so great an improvement on the last that, more than once, Sholes thought they had reached perfection.

“The machine is done, and I want some more worlds to conquer,” he wrote Weller. “Life will be most flat, stale, and unprofitable without something to invent.” But there was plenty of invention still ahead of him, as we shall see. The typewriter had a father, and two uncles, and Charlie Weller was a sort of nephew. Now it needed a godfather, and one turned up in the oddest way.


When Sholes’s first machine would actually work, he wrote dozens of letters upon it, sending them to friends and public men. You can imagine what a curiosity a typewritten letter was then. One of these letters fell into the hands of Mr. James Densmore, a business man living in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He was so impressed that he wrote Sholes right away, asking if he could become a partner. Sholes talked it over with Glidden and Soule, and told Densmore he could have a quarter interest in the business if he would pay all past expenses. Densmore accepted without even knowing how much the expenses would be, sent the money when it was asked for, and thus bought an interest in an invention he had never seen. He had unbounded faith in the future of the typewriter, and this faith was now going to help Sholes through a very trying period.

Several months went by before Densmore met Sholes and saw the typewriter. Then he said it was “good for nothing except to show that the idea is feasible.” He had plenty of faith in the idea, but pointed out defects in the machine and urged that they be remedied. Soule dropped out, leaving Sholes, Densmore, and Glidden to go on.

Machine after machine was built and sent out to be tried by shorthand reporters. The machines broke down after steady use. Twenty-five or thirty such machines were made, each a little different and a little better. They wrote well enough for a week or two. Then something would break or wear out. One reporter in Washington, James O. Clephane, ruined machine after machine and found fault after fault, until even the gentle Sholes lost his temper, saying: “I am through with Clephane !” But Densmore said: “This candid faultfinding is just what we need. Where Clephane points out a weak lever or rod, let us make it strong. Where a spacer or an inker works stiffly, let us make it work smoothly. Then, depend upon Clephane for all the praise we deserve.” Years later Clephane helped Ottmar Mergenthaler, the inventor of the linotype.

This mother-of-pearl ornamental Remington, one of the first typewriters made at Ilion, was shown at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and hardly notice by the public.

Sholes was a man with many fine traits of character. His broad, open mind became interested in a dozen different things, and his great heart made him countless friends. He was so unselfish that he seldom thought of money, and in fact said he did not like to make it because it was too much bother. For this reason he paid little attention to business matters. He made very little money out of his typewriter in the end, but was not at all sorry, being quite as well satisfied to see his invention spread all over the world and to be called “the father of the typewriter.” He lacked the patience to plod at humdrum work, and hard, persistent work was what the typewriter needed. Without Densmore, he might never have kept at the task.

“Just what we want!” said Densmore, the business man. “Unless we can build machines that stand up, typewriters that anybody can use, we might as well stop right here.” He would cheer Sholes up and set him working again. For more than five years Densmore furnished money and encouragement. They built fifty machines at a cost of $250 each between the fall of 1867 and the spring of 1873. The typewriter grew better, but they had not been able to build and sell it by dozens and hundreds.

Then they found out what was wrong. Neither Sholes nor Densmore were machinists, much less mechanical engineers. And the machinists they hired to do their work had never made parts fine enough for such a machine. Nor could they pass expert judgment upon the mechanical principles of such a machine.

Who would have thought of turning the job over to gunsmiths? Yet that is just what was done. As they seemed to be making little headway, Sholes and Densmore took their typewriter to one of the best mechanical experts in Milwaukee, Mr. G. W. N. Yost, who afterward became a typewriter inventor and builder himself.

“What do you think of it?“ they asked. “What can be done to make it stand up in steady, every-day work?”

Yost suggested various changes and said the typewriter must be built with the accuracy and skill needed in firearms. He sent them to the Remingtons, at Ilion, New York. Sholes and Densmore brought their typewriter to Ilion, in 1872, and received the help of as fine a group of mechanical experts as could have been found anywhere in the country at that time. Sholes had spent all his money and even mortgaged his home. Densmore was still full of faith in the machine, and in his partner, but knew that something was wrong.

Up to this point, the typewriter had been the work of amateurs. Now it ceased to be an experiment. The Remington experts gathered round the machine, took it apart, talked it over, found out what was wrong, and made improvements. They had fine machinery and skilled machinists to carry out their plans. In a few months they were building typewriters that could be sold to any one. They would work, and not break down, and could be built by dozens, hundreds—thousands, if people wanted that many. The Remingtons were so pleased with the machine that they bought it from Sholes and Densmore. It is said that Sholes was satisfied with cash, and so got only $12,000. Densmore was a shrewder business man, and took a royalty, which in after-years paid him many times $12,000 annually. But Sholes never complained.

“All my life I have been trying to escape being a millionaire,” he said humorously, “and now I think I have succeeded.”

Going back to Milwaukee, he went right on making typewriter experiments, helped by two sons. They invented a new typewriter which was simpler, had fewer parts, was less likely to get out of order, and was also “visible”—that is, the operator could see what he was writing as he struck the keys. This afterward became a very important principle in typewriters, and it is interesting to note that Sholes had it in mind from the beginning, for his first machine that wrote only the letter “w” had a glass top through which one could watch it write.

The machine that Sholes brought to Ilion in 1876. The case is opened to show the keyboard. Note that the letters are arranged nearly as they are in the standard keyboard to-day.

Sholes had never been a strong man. His health began to fail under constant work at the desk and in the shop. He became consumptive, and the last nine years of his useful life were spent in search of health. Even when he was not strong enough to sit up, his bed became his workshop. He died in the early nineties, leaving six sons and four daughters.

Nearly every one who came in contact with Sholes while he was working on his typewriter caught his enthusiasm. A friend named Craig, who saw that all business letters would some day be written on typewriters, brought Sholes to Thomas A. Edison’s laboratory in the early seventies, before he went to Ilion. Edison examined his wooden model of a writing-machine and took time to help him improve it mechanically.

But Edison was an inventor, too—not expert in the building of fine machines by the thousand. He thought it would be a hard thing to make commercially. “The alignment of the letters was awful,” he has said since. “One letter would be a sixteenth of an inch above the others, and all the letters wanted to wander out of line.” Edison worked on it until the machine gave fair results, and found an early use for typewriters in automatic telegraphy.

Yost caught Sholes’s enthusiasm, and invented the first machine that wrote small letters as well as capitals, the caligraph, which was ready about 1878. Densmore became a typewriter manufacturer, making a machine bearing his name. Franz X. Wagner was working with the Remingtons when Sholes came to Ilion, and helped develop his machine. Then he worked with Yost, and after that turned typewriter inventor himself, making the first front-stroke visible writing-machine sold to the public. That was patented in 1894, and became known as the “Underwood.” Charlie Weller did not turn inventor, but his belief in Sholes and the typewriter helped to make it known to the public.

Sholes records his progress. A typewritten letter from Sholes to Charles Weller, referring to the contract made with the Remingtons to build better typewriters. The first typewriter wrote only capital letters. They could not stand the wear and tear of every-day use. It was through the efforts of the skilled mechanics of the Remingtons that the typewriter was eventually brought to commercial perfection.

Sholes always believed that his greatest invention would help women earn a living. He wanted to perfect the typewriter, not to make money, but to abolish drudgery.

“Father Sholes, what a wonderful thing you have done for the world!” said a daughter-in-law shortly before he died.

“I don’t know about the world,” was the reply, “but I feel that I have done something for the women who have always had to work so hard. This will help them earn a living more easily.


Before the typewriter was invented, few women were employed in business offices. If a refined, educated woman had to earn her living then, or a girl wanted to earn money, there were only teaching school, clerking in a dry-goods store, or a place as governess or librarian—that was about all. Older women kept boarders or lodgers. To-day, thousands of women work in offices at tasks which were unknown before the typewriter and other office machines appeared.

The typewriter has rightly been called the “great-grandfather of office machinery.” Because it is so common, we lose sight of its wonders. What would a telephone or electric light company have to charge for service if its thousands of bills were written out in longhand every month, its letters written with pen and ink, its records kept by old-fashioned bookkeeping methods? The office work might cost as much as the telephone service or electric current! Gas and electricity would be luxuries that only well-to-do people could afford.


If all office machinery, including the typewriter, were suddenly taken away from business men, they could find some way to get along without them, of course. But they could afford so few records that one of the greatest elements of business efficiency and progress would be lost.

For it is upon the cheapness and abundance of machine-made information and communication that modern business grows. With his daily reports from every department, his tables and figures, the business man to-day guides his enterprise much as a ship is steered through unknown waters by compass, chart, and soundings.

The mechanical method of gathering such information is one of the striking things of our age—and it is all machine-made information, largely the product of girls and women who learn simple tasks. The young lady who will take the trouble to learn just typewriting—not stenography—by a few weeks’ practice can now earn more as a copyist than her mother would have been paid for teaching school a generation ago.


When the Remingtons bought Sholes’s typewriter, it was agreed that they could put their own name upon it. Thus the first typewriter actually sold to the public bore the name “Remington.” It took more than five years to invent and build this machine. Now eight years more were to be spent teaching people to use it.

“Of the first Remington typewriters placed on the market in, 1874, only about 400 were sold,” says Mr. C. V. Oden, a veteran writing-machine man who has made the history of the typewriter his hobby. “Many of the machines were returned, some defective. But the real trouble was, that business men did not yet realize how much of their work the typewriter could do.

The first efforts to sell machines were unsuccessful. Sales rights were first given to an electrical company, and then a scales company. A legal sham battle between typewriter inventors was arranged in the belief that people would be interested—but they were not. In 1882, a couple of years before I entered the business as a boy, the firm of Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict was formed to sell typewriters. W. O. Wyckoff was a court reporter at Ithaca, New York. C. W. Seamans had been typewriter sales manager for one of the previous selling companies. H. H. Benedict was a Remington-Arms man.

The first shift-key Remington typewriter (1878). This machine wrote small as well as capital letters.

The education of the public began—a hard job. If you bought a typewriter and used it for letters, people to whom you wrote jumped to the conclusion that you thought they could not read pen-writing! The machine was also looked upon as a luxury or affectation. Mark Twain bought one of the first, in 1875, and copied Tom Sawyer upon it, probably the first typewritten book manuscript ever sent to the printer. But he asked us not to let people know that he owned one of these machines, saying that whenever he sent a typewritten letter to anybody he was always asked to tell what the typewriter was like, and how he was making out with it. ‘Oliver Optic,’ the beloved boys’ writer of that day, was more encouraging—he said he could write about two-thirds as fast on the typewriter as with a pen, that it was less drudgery, and that he hoped to do better with more practice.”

Mark Twain’s typewriter. This is believed to be Mark Twain’s famous typewriter upon which he copied “Tom Sawyer” for the printer – the first typewritten book manuscript.

After the Remingtons had spent great sums, things took a turn for the better about 1882. The new sales firm was enterprising. People began to buy and use typewriters. Each sale made new customers. Soon the business grew so that better machines could be built. In 1886, the typewriter was separated from other Remington enterprises and became a business in itself.


The first machine wrote only capital letters. People wanted to write small letters, too—” lower case” as printers say. Capitals are harder to read. This demand was met by the “double-keyboard” machine, which had a separate key for each letter and character, seventy-eight altogether, nearly twice as many as the single-shift typewriter of to-day. Soon all typewriters wrote both large and small letters—people would not have any other kind.

To obviate the striking of a separate key for each letter, the shift-keyboard was invented. In other words, each type-bar had two letters. The machine wrote small letters ordinarily, and if a capital was to be written the shift-key was pressed. There were single and double shift machines—and are still. The double-shift machine has three characters on each type-bar, so that with only twenty-eight keys it is possible to have more characters than were possible with “double-keyboard” machines like the caligraph.

Then the first typewriters were “blind.” That is, the typist could not see the line he was writing, but had to raise the roller or the carriage, which was hinged. This caused delay. Franz X. Wagner went about a good deal among typists, and knew that speed meant their bread and butter. So he invented the first practical “visible” machine widely sold to the public. We have seen that Christopher Sholes had realized the advantage of visible writing. But Sholes’s visible machine was ahead of its time.

The Wagner typewriter of 1894. From this machine the Underwood was developed.

People had been using typewriters ten years or more when Wagner’s invention was patented and the public ready for it. Mr. John T. Underwood, who had been in the typewriter supply business, saw that this new machine met a real need. He bought the invention, gave it his own name, and built a few machines by hand in a little three-room plant in New York during 1894-5. Five years later he was building tens of thousands. Manufacturers of “blind” typewriters became alarmed. Clearly, the public wanted visibility. But to change blind machines, it was necessary to install new and expensive machinery in the factories. Not until 1908 was the last of the old blind machines transformed.

Then people wanted machines that could be carried about. The reporter, author, clergyman, private secretary, and travelling man needed typewriters far from office or home. One company tried to meet this need by placing typewriters in hotels, to rent at so much a day. But a typewriter that could be carried about as easily as a satchel was the real solution. One of the first typewriters light enough to be thus carried was the Blickensderfer, which fitted in a hand case. It was also one of the first typewriters sold at a moderate price. To-day, we have folding typewriters weighing only six or eight pounds, skeleton copies of standard machines, costing about half as much.

Still the public, like Oliver Twist, wanted more. And one of the things it wanted frightened printers. The first inventors thought the typewriter would take the place of a pen—write letters and copy documents faster. But people quickly saw that, by using carbon-sheets, they could write several copies of a letter or document. By using thin paper more carbon copies could be made, but not as many copies as were often wanted.

Then Edison invented the mimeograph, by which the typewriter wrote a stencil on waxed paper, and from that thousands of copies could be made. No wonder the printers were alarmed! If a girl with a typewriter could make thousands of circulars, who would want printed circulars. But soon they saw that, for every job of printing lost in this way, the typewriter brought them several others.

People have wanted machines which would write more than one language, and inventors have provided “type-plate” machines with all the letters on one plate or wheel, which can be taken off and another slipped on. To change from English to Spanish, or from a small type suitable for letters to a very large type needed in a sermon that is to be read, takes but a minute.

The mimeograph would not take the place of printing.


Business men wanted typewriters that would keep books as well as write letters—set down columns of figures, add them up, give the totals, subtract, and so forth. Inventors busied themselves with the book typewriter. At first, bound books were replaced with loose-leaf records which would fit a typewriter, and “marginal stops” made it easy to write figures in columns. Then little adding and subtracting machines were attached to typewriters, so that a girl in making out a customer’s bill, for instance, typed all the different items, and added them as fast as she wrote them. If there were amounts to be deducted, such as discounts, the machine would also subtract these.

Modern bookkeeping machines began to appear—super-typewriters. They not only write in the pages of great business record books opened flat, but put down many rows of complex figures, adding and subtracting, giving names, dates, and other items in one or more colors, making duplicates. Indeed, it is too bad that Alfred Beach could not have lived to see this “literary piano” with which, by playing on the keys, a girl can do, in five minutes, more work than an old-fashioned bookkeeper could do in an hour. If the bookkeeper made a slight mistake, it took him sometimes another hour to find it; but if the girl makes a mistake, the bookkeeping machine stops and points it out.

When the typewriter was young, people took offense at a typewritten letter. Now they take offense if it is not typewritten! That is, a mimeograph letter sent to a thousand people will not be read with nearly as much interest as a thousand letters separately typewritten. We all like to feel that we alone have received the letter addressed to us. Hence the automatic typewriter was invented. Another chapter of this book tells what inventors have done by punching holes in paper—a basic principle of great value. With the automatic typewriter, the letter is written that is to be sent to a thousand people—or a million, if you please. A roll of perforated paper that looks as though it might be played in a mechanical piano fits into a machine which operates an ordinary typewriter.

You write “Mr. David Crockett, Boonville, Ky.; My dear Mr. Crockett—” on the keys of this typewriter, turn a switch, a motor starts, and the roll of perforated paper writes the letter that has been punched in it, each character one by one, just as though the keys were struck by human fingers.

Because the typewriter and shorthand go together, inventors long ago began thinking about machines to write shorthand notes, doing away with the pencil. There are several such machines in use. They write on a narrow paper ribbon, have only about a dozen keys, and with them the trained operator can take down words as fast as they are spoken. Some of them abbreviate the words, and others write a word at a stroke, because several characters can be struck and printed at once. Such machine-made notes have to be rewritten on a regular typewriter, of course. There are also several typewriters for blind people—typewriters that punch raised dots in the peculiar alphabet used in books for the blind, and their writing is read by touching it with the fingers.

The Hall-Braille typewriter for the blind. This machine writes Braille, and is to the blind what an ordinary typewriter is to those who can see. A complete character or letter is made with one stroke of a key. As in the ordinary typewriter paper is used, but is fed from a roll, and is not used in single sheets. The carriage is equipped with a release, which permits movement of the platen to any position without using the spacer. Courtesy Cooper Engraving and Manufacturing Company.
Specimen of writing on the Hall-Braille machine, and translation. Courtesy Cooper Engraving and Manufacturing Company.

The typewriter played its part in the great war, showing that the world cannot get along without it. An American invention, it is made almost entirely in the United States. Only the Germans ever seriously, tried to build typewriters, and with little success. Ship space was needed during the World War for munitions and food, so the Allies stopped buying typewriters, thinking they were not needed. But when the great armies went into the field, it took an enormous mass of writing to direct them—orders, despatches, letters, reports, records. Writing- machines were taken from offices and sent to the front, and soon there was a typewriter famine. When we entered the war, the government took three out of every four new typewriters made.

Experts figure that in 1919 the world made 875,000 typewriters, of which 775,000 were American. In ordinary times, every other typewriter we make goes to some foreign customer.

The experts have also visualized the typewriter of to-morrow. Again, it will be what people want. Already business men are beginning to ask: “Why should we use muscle power to press down keys when there are plenty of electric motors to do such work?” The experts say that eventually typewriters must be electrical—that is, the operator will simply touch a key and a motor will do the work of printing the letter.

Blickensderfer, who invented the first real portable typewriter, also built a promising electrical machine in the early years of this century. But it was never widely used. The machine was complex and costly. The electric typewriter must be reasonable in price. It is sure to come at the right time, because it will save human strength, increase writing-speed, and be particularly good at making carbon copies. When electricity operates the mechanism, twenty or thirty copies will be possible. To do this, however, the machine must write flat and not on a roller, for which reason the experts believe that flat writing will characterize the typewriter of to-morrow. But these are still guesses, more or less—we shall have to wait and see.

Here at the end, there is just room to say a word or two about typewriter speed and accuracy. Twenty years ago rival manufacturers started a yearly contest for typists, each hoping to prove that his machine would write faster than any other. The winners began with seventy words a minute, steadily growing faster year by year until now the record is 143 words a minute—which is faster than most people can read a book aloud. To get speed, you must have a well-built machine. It has been figured that one of these champion typewriters, writing 143 words a minute for a whole hour, touches the keys about twelve times a second. But while the typewriter must make twice as many motions as the typist, because the type-bars have to move back as well as forward, and its carriage also moves, close study of the work of the champions in these contests often shows not a single mechanical error.

Father Sholes could certainly have appreciated that!

The first typist – one of Shole’s daughters. The early typewriters of Sholes were made to be locked up when not in use. Courtesy Underwood Typewriter Company.
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