GOAL: “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…” -Anonymous 1

Submitted patent in 1868

Sholes-Glidden-Soule Machine

Sholes, Glidden, & Soule. “Typewriting Machine Patent” United States Patent Office, 1868, (accessed March 30, 2011).

“It looked something like a cross between a piano and a kitchen table” -Richard Current2

The first American patent for a writing machine appeared as early as 1829 by William Burt, and for the typewriter appeared in 1843 by Charles Thurber. Their machines however, were not the successful story we know today. Thurber’s machine was too slow and did not have any success. Just as important as the inventors are, promoters are needed for technology to be successful, and Christopher Latham Sholes was able to find an able partner in James Densmore. After reading about a typewriting machine being invented by James Pratt of Alabama, Sholes began to improve upon his latest model. He ended up building between twenty-five and thirty models total and demonstrated the most recent model in 1873. The very first model of the typewriter Sholes created indeed did look like a piano, but nevertheless it was the first practical writing machine. Its development began in Miklwaukee in the Winter of 1866-67. 3 Sholes was assisted by Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, both amateur inventors. The original only wrote in capital letters and its structure prevented the operator from seeing the line that she was writing.” 4 Densmore presented their completed machine in 1873 to E. Remington & Sons. Zellers quotes Henry Benedict, a director of the Remington Company, “‘That machine, is very crude, but there is an idea there that wil revolutionize business. We must on no account let it get away.’ A contract for manufacture was signed on March 1, 1873, and eventually E. Remington & sons acquired complete ownership.” 5 Thus, the Remington Company took a risk, as most companies must do for a new piece of technology to prevail.

Remington Typewriter – How it was made (1935)

QWERTY Keyboard

QWERTY Keyboard

“QWERTY Keyboard” (Accessed March 30, 2011).

The keyboard is the main component to the typewriter, as it has all the letters. And there were many variations to this piece of the machine. One of the main issues with early typewriters, and early writing machines in general, was that they “did excellent work, but which could not compete against the pen in speed.” 6 It also only had uppercase letters and no lowercase. Wershler-Henry states that “Originally  the tendency was to arrange all letters…in alphabetical order for easy reference. It was assumed that if people knew their alphabet, and most people did, it would be easy to locate the letter required.” But this was not efficient for the typewriter, because, “the ‘ABC’ arrangement caused his up-strike machine to jam when any speed was reached.” 7 rather it was efficient only for the typer.

Sholes was also the creator of the QWERTY keyboard that we know and still use today (with a few modifications). The problem with the original machine’s keyboard was that the arms would get stuck together as one was going up to type the next letter and the other was coming down. As a solution, Wershler-Henry explains, “Sholes’s parter [James Densmore] delegated his son-in-law…to draw up a list of the most common two-letter sequences in the English language. Sholes then designed the keyboard so that these pairs were separated, thus introducing a tiny delay between the activation of one letter and the next.” 8

Whether or not this was more efficient is debatable. On one hand, the key arms were no longer sticking together, but on the other, typists were not used to this arrangement of letters. “Sholes’s arrangement is a keyboard ‘considerably less efficient than if the arrangement had been left to simple chance.'” 9 So why then did it remain persistent all the way through present day?


Dvorak Keyboard

The most popular alternate keyboard to the QWERTY was created by August Dvorak and was patented in 1936, as the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. 10 This keyboard featured a greater utilization of right hand keying, a minimization of awkward fingering sequences, and a larger home-[middle] row vocabulary (3000 vs. 100 common words). In addition, the typist can learn this keyboard in a third amount of time it took to learn the QWERTY keyboard. 11 But why did QWERTY prevail? The answer, simply because people wanted things to stay the same, no one wanted to learn a new keyboard all over again, and just as many technological advances occur, the superior product does not always become the standard.

  1. “Typewriting Machine” Scientific American 17, no. 1 (July 1867): 3. <;cc=scia;rgn=full%20text;idno=scia1017-1;didno=scia1017-1;view=image;seq=00011;node=scia1017-1%3A1> (accessed March 30, 2011).
  2. Richard Current, The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1954) 9
  3. John Zellers, The Typewriter: A Short History, on its 75th Anniversary 1873-1948. (New York: The Newcomen Society of England,1948), 10.
  4. Ibid, 13.
  5. Ibid, 12.
  6. Ibid, 9.
  7. Darren Wershler-Henry, The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) 155.
  8. Ibid, 156.
  9. Ibid, 156.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

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