When you think about it, typing on a computer is a magical thing—just hit the keys you want, and letters magically appear on a screen in front of you. The modern typewriter, for all of its analogue components, isn’t much different, but typewriters weren’t always so easy, intuitive, or standardized.

Henry Mill filed the first patent for a typewriter in 1714, although the machine he envisioned was never built. While a few typewriters were made sporadically in Europe and America in the early 19th century, none were produced on a large scale.

In 1874, Christopher Sholes developed one that would change that; with backing from Carlos Glidden, he proposed the design for the Sholes & Glidden typewriter to E. Remington & Sons, a manufacturing plant that had formerly specialized in guns but was looking to diversify its business with the Civil War over. In that first year, E. Remington produced 1,000 Sholes & Glidden typewriters, making it the first historically important typewriter and the first to be mass-produced.

Even so, the machine was a far cry from modern typewriters. For starters, it could only print capital letters, and the type arms struck the paper from underneath; this design was called upstrike or understrike. The unhappy result was that typists could only see what they were typing by lifting the carriage, which resulted in the nickname “Blind Remington” and prevented the Sholes & Glidden typewriter from becoming very popular, in spite of its beautiful, hand-painted floral decorations.

Yet this typewriter, for all its imperfections, would come to shape history. It was the first to utilize the now familiar “QWERTY” keyboard, so named for the sequence of keys that begins its top row of letters. Sholes designed the QWERTY keyboard to solve one of the problems of type bars: if two adjacent keys were hit in quick succession, they would collide. QWERTY keyboards minimized these clashes by separating letters frequently used in sequence (like t and h) and those used most often.

Despite its purposeful inefficiency, the Sholes & Glidden typewriter was the first to be faster than handwriting and thus showed the promise of the device. Additionally, with improved carbon paper, typewriters could generate multiple copies of the same document.

In 1878, E. Remington released an updated version of the original Sholes & Glidden, the Perfect Type Writer No. 2 (later known as Standard No. 2). This typewriter could type lowe...

But typewriters were still far from perfect. In the fashion of Darwinian evolution, typewriters mutated and evolved over time in a blossoming marketplace. Gradually, the best combinations of mechanisms and designs began to emerge, although manufacturers experimented almost endlessly along the way, sometimes simply in an effort to avoid patent infringement.

The Caligraph, released in 1881, was the first major competitor to E. Remington. Unlike the Standard No. 2, the Caligraph featured a “full” keyboard, with separate keys for lower- and uppercase letters. For years, manufacturers would battle over whether keyboards should have one set of keys (with a shift button) or two sets of keys, one for uppercase and one for lowercase.

Some ignored the debate entirely. The Hammond typewriter, for example, did not utilize type bars at all. Instead, it utilized a piece of rubber called a type shuttle, which had the type letters engraved in it. A hammer hit the paper against the type shuttle. The Oliver, which was first produced in 1894, had vertical type bars, which made it a remarkably durable choice in the deserts of North Africa during World War II, since sand would simply blow through the machine, rather than clog it up.

The Daugherty Visible of 1891 was the first typewriter to feature visible writing. Its front-strike mechanism became the standard typewriter design around 1908, when Remington and Smith Premier produced their own front-strike models.

As typewriters evolved, so did the techniques typists utilized. In 1888, touch typing—typing without looking at the keyboard—spread quickly, which heralded an even more dramatic increase in typing speed. This development, combined with the increasing availability and affordability of machines, boosted the typewriter to prominence in business offices.

Consumers who wanted a typewriter for more casual use, however, were generally hard-pressed: typewriters were almost prohibitively expensive. To meet growing demand, some manufacturers in the late 19th century developed index machines, which dispensed with keyboards altogether. Instead of typing on keys, the typist turned a knob or dial to select the desired character and then pressed a button to print that character. While these machines were slower than typewriters, they were more affordable.

This period of diversity, which many typewriter collectors consider a sort of Golden Age, saw the beginning of its end in 1896 with the release of the Underwood. The Underwood had many of the features we recognize as standard in modern typewriters—four rows of keys, with a shift key and a front strike. Type bars struck the front of the platen (the rubber roller that the paper rests on). Finally, here was a typewriter that had solved the problem of visible writing in an elegant, practical way.

In the 1920s, typewriters began to be standardized more or less along the lines of the Underwood machine, and diversity in typewriter design gradually disappeared.

Collectors today can easily identify typewriters by the brand names that are generally stamped on the fronts of these machines in large letters. The exact age and year can be more difficult to determine, but serial and model numbers are useful starting points.

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