Collecting antique typewriters circa 1900 has been a wonderful experience for me over the years. My collection is really just the tip of the iceberg, as literally hundreds of distinct collectible typewriters were manufactured. There are so many more interesting models that my search will never end. For a collector, though, this is tantalizingly good news!
I also love to restore these typewriters. I’ve spent hundreds of hours working on a single machine, dismantling every part to remove dirt, old oil and rust. It takes a lot of patience, but the pleasures of exploring the mechanisms of a hundred-year old typewriter, and the end result — a beautiful, smoothly operating artifact — is well worth it.
I started collecting typewriters in 1989, when I spotted a very dusty and intriguing item high upon a shelf in a cluttered junk shop. It turned out to be a Caligraph typewriter from the early 1880s. I also collect decorated typewriter ribbon tins, mechanical devices, advertising and letterheads from the period.
The following brief history of early typewriters focuses on the remarkable typewriters from the 1880s and 1890s, when typewriters first emerged in the age of modernism and changed the world.
Part of the magic of these early typewriters is that they are so far away and yet so close. There is a remarkable collective experience that we all have towards typing and an incredible nostalgia for the typewriter, with an intellectual and emotional investment in it as the symbol of writing.
These early typewriters are relevant to just about everyone and create an immediate connection, as one relates to the typing machine, its keyboard and how this tool has impacted ones’ life. These typewriters provoke all sorts of memories from people who have typed as a child or as an adult, to people who have never seen or used a typewriter but type on a computer keyboard.
The First Typewriters
The keyboard provides an essential means for one to communicate and is used by more people today then ever before. Keyboards are arguably one of the most important tools in the world, a tool that represents our personal communication in this technological age. The keyboard truly connects the planet. But what did the first keyboards and typewriters look like and how did they evolve?
Typewriters from the 1930s and 40s all look pretty much the same, they “look like a typewriter”. With four rows of straight keys, single shift and front strike visible (type-bars hit the front of the roller allowing one to see what they have just typed).
Typewriters have not always looked like this though. Just imagine if you, never having seen a typing machine, were asked to design one. How might it look? In fact, the standard big, black machines that you might be familiar with such the Underwood and Remington were the result of many years of mechanical evolution.
During these early years of discovery, ingenuity and mistakes, over four hundred different typing machines were produced to print the written word. Among them were machines with curved keyboards, double keyboards or no keyboards at all!
The first typewriter patent was issued to an English engineer, Henry Mill in 1714. He outlined the concept of the typewriter when he registered a patent for “an artificial machine for impressing letters one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings may be engrossed in paper or parchment, so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.” However, this machine was never made.
Many experimental typewriters were built and used during the first 75 years of the nineteenth century but none were produced in quantity. This was about to change though, as the technology for mass production had arrived and the need for fast, accurate business communication was growing. What was needed was a person to bring together all of the successful elements that had been developed so far.
The Sholes & Glidden Machine
This person was Christopher Sholes, an American printer living in Milwaukee. After a shaky start with a number of experimental, prototype machines, Sholes was advised by his financial backer (Glidden) to have his typewriter produced by E. Remington & Sons. This was wise advice as the Remington factory was well equipped to mass-produce complex machines, having already set up production facilities to manufacture guns and later sewing machines. With the American Civil War over and the need for guns diminished, Remington was eager for new business opportunities and embraced the challenge.
In 1874, one thousand Sholes & Glidden typewriters came out of the Remington factory. This typewriter was a beautiful object, all black and covered with hand painted floral decorations. A cast iron foot treadle operated the carriage return. The influence of the sewing machine on its design was clear. To see what had been typed, it was necessary to lift up the carriage and look under the roller, as the type-bars struck on the underside.
The Sholes and Glidden machine was also the first appearance of the “Qwerty” keyboard. The purpose of this layout was to minimize the type-bars from clashing with each other while typing, by separating the type-bars of letters that are frequently typed in sequence (t & h) and letters that are frequently used. Attempts were made to introduce more sensible layouts once typewriter designs had evolved but it was too late, people had already learned one way and understandably did not want to learn again.
The start was slow for the typewriter. With the next typewriter, the Caligraph, not entering the world stage until 1881. However, during the following twenty years everything changed, as the industrial world realized that the typewriter was indispensable.
In Search of Standardization
There was not one inventor of the typewriter, far from it. Hundreds of companies and individuals got into the business of designing and building typewriters. The inventors, having to avoid patent infringements and pursuing their own notion of the better typewriter, created many ingenious mechanisms to get the printed word onto paper. There was little if any apparent design progression for these first typewriters.
A great variety of machines were invented, out of which the most efficient combinations of mechanisms were gradually selected. Some mechanisms, too advanced, disappeared until a later time. Each mechanism solved a particular problem, but not always in the best way. There were notable successes and failures!
Full keyboard typewriters were very expensive, costing between $60 and $100 (a clerk’s wage was $5 a week, with a horse drawn carriage costing between $40 & $70. ). With few second-hand machines to be had, a less expensive machine was needed. Thus, the “index machine” was born. This typewriter had no keyboard. Instead, a dial or knob was turned to select the character to be printed. Typing was slow, but the cost was right at $5 to $30 per machine. The index machine was popular for small businesses and home use. Many varieties were produced. As second hand machines became available and touch-typing was discovered around 1900, the market for index typewriters disappeared.
By 1896 many components, combinations and designs had been tried and the winner was emerging. A typewriter with the correct combination of successful components, a typing machine that would usher in the new century, conquer the world and put an end to this period of rich diversity in typewriter history. The Underwood had arrived.
Images in this article appear in the following order:
(All images courtesy Martin Howard of antiquetypewriters.com)
1. Wilson’s Silk Spun Ribbon Tin
2. Example of a 1930s and 1940s typewriter
3. Victor 1889. Boston. The World’s first “Daisy Wheel” typewriter.
4. Malling Hansen’s typing ball. Denmark 1878.
5. Sholes & Gliddon typewriter
6. Hammond New York 1881
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