The typewriter: an informal history

The following is the text of a press fact sheet published by the IBM Office Products Division in August 1977.


Banging fitfully away at an early-model typewriter, Mark Twain dashed off the following letter to his brother in 1875:

"I am trying get the hang of this new fangled writing machine, but am not making a shining success of it. However this is the first attempt I have ever made, & yet I perceive that I shall soon & easily acquire a fine facility in its use. . . .The machine has several virtues. I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair & work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don't muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper."

Twain, who made a point of assailing most machinery in his short stories, is reputed to be the world's first author to use a typewriter. His manuscript for Life on the Mississippi arrived at the publisher's neatly set down in typewritten form.

Queen Anne awards first patent

Perfected in the nineteenth century, the notion of making a machine to produce letters automatically began during the reign of Queen Anne, the eighteenth-century British monarch. In 1714, she awarded a patent to Henry Mill, an engineer, for:

"An artifical machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and publick recors, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery."

But if Mr. Mill's invention ever gained "great use in settlements," no record exists. He left no model, no drawings, no information about himself. Queen Anne's patent remains the only mention of his typewriting device.

Men continued to work on the development of the typewriter, but without the official recognition accorded to Mr. Mill.

Early American efforts

Not until 1829, when an American named William Austin Burt received a patent for a "typographer" is there any further record of a typewriting invention. Burt's "Typographer" looked very much like a butcher's block and, unfortunately, performed with about the same delicacy. A patent office fire in 1836 destroyed the only model of Mr. Burt's machine; subsequently, however, a copy of his device was built and exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Two of the most common features of today's typewriters were developed in the nineteenth century. Burt was the first to use type bars, while the metal levers which bear the letters and numerals, and the moveable carriage were devised independently by another inventor, Charles Thurber. The movable carriage first appeared on Mr. Thurber's machine in 1843.

Numerous other men tried to perfect a typing machine during the next few decades of the nineteenth century, but each effort had more than its share of flaws. The most prevalent drawback was speed; for all of their mechanical wizardry, the early typewriters performed more slowly than a man with a pen.

In all, more than 50 men attempted to develop a typewriting device before the first practical typewriter was put together.

The first practical typewriter

A printer from Milwaukee deserves the credit for inventing the forerunner of the typewriter we know today. Christopher Latham Sholes, working with Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, began by trying to develop a machine which would print numbers consecutively on the pages of a book. In 1867, Glidden asked why Sholes's machine had to print only numerals, why it could not be made to reproduce the letters of the alphabet. Later that same year, Sholes built the first prototype of his typewriter, admittedly limited in its utility, for it could print only the letter "w." But it worked. A row of "w"s would appear on a page as fast as Sholes could operate the key button. By 1873, Sholes and his associates had experimented enough to be finally satisfied.

His first typewriter looked like a cross between a loom and a jack-in-the-box, but it could operate faster than a man could write with a pen, and the letters were legible. Sholes was so taken with his invention that he began to type all his letters, even his personal notes, and to type rather than sign his name.

On the market for the first time

To market their "Type-Writer," the three men contacted the firm of E. Remington & Sons, a large manufacturing firm which had made famous the name of Remington firearms and Remington sewing machines. The men at Remington hedged a bit, then agreed to build the fantastic new machines.

A man named William K. Jenne was responsible for the design and subsequent improvements to the first successfully-marketed typewriter, the Remington Model 1.

The influence of the sewing machine division of Remington & Sons showed clearly in the Model 1. While the typewriter itself looked remarkably like present-day machines, it was mounted on a stand similar to a sewing machine table; moreover, the carriage was returned by means of a foot- treadle, and Remington's first advertising billed the "Typewriter" as a machine "the size of a sewing machine, and an ornament to an office, study or sitting room." Continuing, the advertising declared that "it is certain to become indispensable in families as the sewing machine."

Jenne devises improvements

Although the Remington typewriter was a moderate success, it still needed improvement. For one thing, the typist could not see what was being printed on the paper, for the type bars struck the underside of the platen, which meant that a typist had to roll the paper out of the machine periodically to see what, if any, mistakes had been made. For another, the first typewriters typed only capital letters; it was not until 1878, when Remington introduced the Model 2, that lower-case letters were used. Also, the foot-treadle used to return the carriage proved utterly unsuited to its function, and was replaced with the now familiar hand-operated return mechanism. Finally, Mr. Jenne developed a device to reverse the ribbon automatically, thereby preventing the typist from tearing a hole in the end of the flimsy strip of ink-impregnated cloth.

By 1909, 89 separate typewriter manufacturers existed in the United States alone, so popular had the new device become. And, as predicted, the typewriter had become indispensable.

Teaching people to touch type

There were, in addition, a variety of typing methods advocated when the contraptions were first put on the market. Some insisted that two fingers be used; some demanded that eight be put into play; others would have the typist stare at the key buttons; others would have her fix her eyes on the text. About the only thing all these methods had in common was the arrangement of the keyboard, fixed by Sholes and hardly changed since.

By 1878, typing was taught in schools with the Scott-Browne school in New York City being the first institution to offer such a course. And, in 1881, women had their first taste of secretarial duties when the New York YWCA offered typing instruction to eight young ladies. The association of secretary to typewriter and woman to secretary caught on soon after, and public stenographers became a fixture in better hotels throughout the country. Within a few years, every major firm in the United States had a complement of women typists.

Further improvements quickly followed the full public acceptance of the typewriter. Most companies introduced portable typewriters and specialized machines for certain clerical work before World War I; foreign-language machines came into common use shortly thereafter. But one major improvement was yet to come, electrically-powered typewriters.

The first spark of electricity

When Sholes was tinkering with his prototype typewriter, he attracted the attention of Thomas Alva Edison, who predicted that electricity would one day power typewriters. Edison, in fact, constructed a typewriter driven by a series of magnets, a development related to his invention of the stock ticker. His magnetic typewriter proved far practical than his stock quotation machine, and development of a power typewriter waited until the late 1920's.

At that time, Electromatic Typewriters, Inc. was manufacturing an electric typewriter and making a modest amount of money in the process. In 1933, International Business Machines Corporation purchased the tools, patents and production facilities of the firm. Only 21 years old in 1934, IBM invested over a million dollars that year alone in typewriter research and service facilities, and began to market what would be the first completely successful electric typewriter, the IBM Model 01.

In 1941, the company added a new dimension to typewriter technology which Sholes, Jenne and others probably never dreamed possible: proportional spacing. A new carriage mechanism eliminated the uneven appearance of typewritten material where narrow letters, such as "i" and "1" occupy as much space as wide letters, such as "m" and "w." Proportional spacing gives each letter typed only as much space as necessary, and the development has greatly improved the appearance and legibility of typewritten material. The first IBM "Executive" Typewriter with proportional spacing, the Model A, was placed on the market shortly after World War II, and the "Executive" Typewriter has remained a staple of the company's typewriter line.

The IBM "Selectric" typewriter revolution

Since the first years of typewriter development, more than 100 years ago, man had relied on type bars, metal levers set into motion by a typist's fingers, to print each letter on a piece of paper. To be sure, other devices had been experimented with; some claimed that a revolving disc could be used successfully; others dabbled with a revolving drum containing metal plungers. But for the first 90 years of typewriter technology, type bars proved to be the only efficient way to make an impression on a page.

In 1961, however, IBM introduced a revolutionary way to make a typewriter work, and work well. This was the IBM "Selectric" Typewriter, which replaced type bars and moving carriages with a printing element, a sphere no larger than a golf ball, which bears all alphabet characters, numbers and punctuation symbols. The element moves along a slender metal rod, tilting and rocking at very high speed as it selects the desired character.

The IBM "Selectric" II Typewriter introduced in 1971, also features a number of additions to typing technology. Containing the "dual-pitch" mechanism, the "Selectric" II Typewriter enables the typist to switch from ten-pitch (ten characters per inch), commonly used for routine correspondence, to twelve pitch (twelve characters per inch), for use in typing business forms. Accomplished by merely switching a lever, a change in pitch can be made in a matter of seconds, and all on the same typewriter. Another feature of the IBM "Selectric" II Typewriter is the IBM Tech III Ribbon. Enclosed in a snap-in/snap-out cartridge, the mylar ribbon needs only to be changed five times yearly as compared to the 64 changes necessary with the previously used carbon ribbon.

In 1973, the IBM Correcting "Selectric" Typewriter became the first machine in the history of typing to actually make typing errors disappear from original copies. Equipped with a special "Lift-Off" tape, the typewriter enables a typist to virtually "lift-off" erroneous characters from typed copy. Activated by depressing a correcting key, the "Lift-Off" tape completely removes ink impressions from the paper, allowing the operator to simply type in the correct character and continue typing.

Since their introduction, IBM "Selectric" Typewriters have become among the most popular typewriters for training in schools and universities, as well as in most aspects of business.

With the advent of electric typing, automatic, error-free typewriters were soon developed. The first such machine relied upon a large perforated roll of paper which worked much the same way as the old player piano: the perforations activated a series of small prongs, which, in turn, operated the key buttons on the typewriter.

Magnetics: the ultimate in speed and accuracy

As the IBM Mag Card "Selectric" Typewriter enjoyed popularity being one of the most efficient typing systems ever made, IBM evolved the concept a step further with the development of the IBM Communicating Mag Card "Selectric" Typewriter. With its introduction, magnetic card typewriters are able to send prerecorded information to each other, over any distance via voice-grade telephones. In addition, the Communicating Mag Card Typewriter also enables magnetic card typewriters to provide input to computers, as well as receiving information from them.

For work involving extensive revision, the IBM Mag Card II Typewriter was introduced in 1973. Its electronic memory holds up to 8,000 characters, equivalent to about 2 ½ pages of typing. Once in memory, information can be recorded on magnetic cards at 200 characters per second. And, as is the case with other magnetic media typewriters, its memory allows for making major revisions without retyping. Regardless of whether changes consist of one word or a whole page, only the changes need to be typed. All other copy is automatically played out from memory.

The typewriter with a memory

In 1974, the introduction of the IBM Memory Typewriter enabled typists to complete their work with a minimum of time and effort. Built into the typewriter is a memory which stores everything typed and allows the operator to recall and revise previously typed material. The memory is activated whenever typists begin keyboarding and because it works in conjunction with the typewriter's special correction system, typists can record all work at "rough draft" speed. The memory is capable of storing up to 50 pages of copy which can be played back in error-free form at 150 words per minute.

The IBM Memory 100 Typewriter, with a 100 page built-in action file, was introduced in 1977.

"Selectric" technology right to left typewriter

"Selectric" technology served as the catalyst for the typewriter designed for typing Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi. The IBM Right-to-Left Correcting "Selectric" Typewriter was introduced in 1977. This typewriter reverses the functioning of the conventional model designed for English and other Western languages. The typing element prints right-to-left, corresponding to the direction these languages are read. There are three keyboards, one for typing Hebrew, one for Arabic, and one for Farsi. These languages are spoken by some 200 million people in North Africa, the Middle East, and Near East.

High-speed Mag Card unit increases productivity

The IBM 6240 Mag Card Typewriter, which offers high-speed, high-quality impact printing, was introduced in 1977. It operates at speeds up to 55 characters per second, utilizing an operator-changeable print wheel available in 10 and 12 pitch. Equipped with an electronic memory, it has the capacity to record, revise, and manipulate up to 8,000 characters of information. The IBM 6240 is compatible with other IBM Mag Card Typewriters. When equipped with the optional communications feature, it can communicate over telephone lines with compatible equipment or a suitably programmed computer.

Sholes never imagined machines that could type at 55 characters per second. Nor did he ever envision a typewriter with an electronic memory capable of storing up to 8,000 characters. Typewriters are now so efficient and versatile that they can be used virtually anywhere: to print out information stored on computers, to prepare continuous business forms, and to make it easier and less expensive for individuals and companies to communicate with one another.

While today the typewriter is virtually indispensable in offices, the man who developed the machine over a 100 years ago fretted that it would be little more than a fad. Sholes frequently expressed dismay that:

"You know that my apprehension is, that the thing may take a while, and for a while there may be an active demand for them, but that like any other novelty, it will have its brief day and be thrown aside."

Even then, however, the typewriter had become so popular that the Remington Company received a letter from Mark Twain, which today seems most ironic:

"Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc., etc. I don't like to write letters, so I don't want people to know that I own this curiosity breeding little joker.

                                 Yours truly, Saml. L. Clemens."