Fewer machines have made more of an impact on the world than the humble typewriter. For over a hundred years, this little machine was responsible for everything from newspaper-stories, film-scripts, some of the world’s greatest novels and stories, letters to loved ones and friends, and some of the most famous speeches of the past century.
The Birth of the Typewriter
Well…where did the car come from? Where did the lightbulb come from? Where did the electric telegraph come from?
We think the answer is simple and can be traced to the genius of one man. But as is often the case, the typewriter, just like with all the other things mentioned above, it was the contributions and discoveries and inventions made by lots of people that eventually culminated in one great, mutually-beneficial machine.
The idea of having a machine that could be operated by one man, and which could print out anything that the user wanted using movable type (hence the name ‘type-writer’), is an old one, and dates back at least to the 1700s. While people had been trying for hundreds of years to create a workable typing-machine, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that real progress started to be made.
The Hansen Ball
This curious machine is the Hansen Writing Ball, so named for its spherical shape. It was invented in 1865 by a priest, Rasmus Malling-Hansen. Put into production in 1870, this was the world’s first commercially-available typewriter.
The Hansen Ball was typing genesis. It was the first real typewriter. But like anything that’s the ‘first real’ of anything, the Hansen was still very much a prototype of things to come, and came with a number of annoying shortcomings. The most obvious one is that, due to the arrangement of the keys, it’s damn near impossible to read the text of what you’re typing while the paper is in the machine. It was pretty clear that something better had to be invented.
The World’s First Typewriter
Behold the first-ever commercially successful typewriter:
What you are looking at is the Sholes & Glidden typewriter. The world’s first really successful typing machine, developed in 1867. It has the familiar type-bars up the top with the roller, and the keys and the spacebar down the bottom in front of the typist. Laid out in this now-familiar manner, this typewriter became wildly popular because it was easy to use, had everything designed in an easy-to-see layout, and was the first typing machine with the now-standard “QWERTY” keyboard (where does ‘Qwerty’ come from? Take a look at the first six letters at the top left of your keyboard in front of you).
The QWERTY keyboard was designed to stop typewriter typebars jamming together by spacing out the keys and typebars of the most frequently-used letters in the English language.
Sholes and Glidden were the men who invented this machine – Christopher Latham Sholes and his friend, mechanic Carlos Glidden. With assistance from printer Samuel Soules, the three men put together their new machine in a workshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
In time, their prototype was ready and was unveiled in 1873. Try as they might, the men couldn’t mass-produce their typewriters, and so they sold it to
a firearms manufacturer.
This firearms manufacturer was looking to make more things than just guns. They were already making mechanical sewing-machines, and they saw this new ‘typing-machine’ as the next big thing, and snatched it up.
The name of this company?
E. Remington & Sons.
To this day, Remington typewriters are still considered among the best in the world, along with Ollivetti, Royal and Smith-Corona.
The Sholes & Glidden typewriter was renamed the Remginton No. 1. Although it was fairly practical, it still had a few shortcomings – you were still unable to see what you were typing on the paper. And the typebars only had capital letters on them. But it was at least better than the Hansen Writing Ball.
Improving the Typewriter
The Remington No. 1. was successful, but only moderately so. The shortcomings mentioned above slowed its acceptance by society, and the relative complexity of its operation meant that special people (typists!) had to be trained in using this new machine.
By the the 1880s and 90s, typewriters had improved markedly in design. Now, you could see what you were typing as you typed, due to a rearrangement of the typebars and the manner in which they struck the paper. You could type in both upper and lowercase letters and typebars didn’t tangle up and jam as much as they uesd to. By the turn of the century, the modern mechanical typewriter as we know it, was developed.
The Impact of the Typewriter
The impact of the typewriter was amazing. For the first time in history, a person could write faster than what he could with a pen. He didn’t need to keep dipping his dip-pen into an inkwell. His writing remained neat, constant and level throughout the entire word…sentence…line…page…document!
The typewriter made everything faster, neater, easier and more standardised and uniform. The typewriter also saw the entrance of women into the business workforce for the first time. Secretaries hammered away at their machines, typing out copy and speeches, reports, essays and memoranda. The typewriter was changing everything.
Once, writers had to handwrite everything. Now, they could type it up. Some of the greatest stories in the world were typed up on typewriters, and some typewriter-brands became famously associated with various authors.
Ever since the 1980s, the typewriter has become less and less of a business machine or desktop staple, and more and more a historical curiosity. But to this day, we still use a lot of typewriter jargon in our everyday lives.
Don’t believe me?
You see this on your email textboxes all the time. “C.C.”, stands for “CARBON COPY”. In the days of typewriters, to make a carbon-copy meant to sandwich two pieces of paper around a sheet of carbon-paper. All three pieces of paper were then cranked into the typewriter. When a typebar struck the ribbon, the ink would imprint itself onto the first sheet. The force of the typebar hitting the page would press some of the dye out of the sheet of carbon-paper and imprint the same letter onto the second sheet of paper behind it. This second sheet of paper would be called the ‘carbon-copy’.
The most important key on a keyboard. It opens windows, closes folders, starts new lines, begins movies and does so many things in computer-games.
But have you ever noticed that this oh-so-important key, locted on the right of your keyboard, isn’t always called ‘ENTER’?
On some keyboards, it’s called ‘RETURN’.
The ‘Return’ or ‘Enter’ key is descendant from the typewriter, back when you started a new line and returned the carriage to the extreme right by pulling on the carriage-release & return lever.
Aah, the shift-key. The bane of civilised internet-users.
But why is it called a shift-key?
The Shift Key, the one that transforms your lowercase letters into CAPITALS, is a holdover from typewriter days. It gets its name because pressing this key on the typewriter quite literally ‘shifted’ the keys. It moved the basket (the semicircular collection of typebars) up so that when a key was pressed, the capital of a letter would strike the ribbon and mark the paper, instead of its equivalent lowercase letter.
The hammerheads of all typewriter-bars actually have two letters (or other appropriate symbol on it) instead of one. The regular letters or symbols struck the ribbon and paper when the typewriter was in default mode, but pressing the shift-key shifted the basket so that capital letters (or symbols such as the $-sign or the &-sign), on a particular hammerhead would strike the ribbon and paper instead.
Back then, just as today, the Shift key was operated by the pinky-finger. Today, it’s pretty easy to hold down Shift and just TYPE LIKE THIS.
But try doing that with a mechanical typewriter and you’ll probably sprain something. So to combat this, you had…
The Shift-Lock or Capitals-Lock (“CAPSLOCK”) key was introduced to hold the basket of typebars in the capitals-position while typing out headings or other parts of a document that had to stand out. This function allowed the typist to type out long sections of capitalised text without putting extra strain on the pinky-fingers which would otherwise have to have held the shift-key (and the entire basket of typebars) in-place while this operation was completed.
Typewriters have the famous shortcoming of not allowing the typist to delete or remove previously typed text. And yet…they have a key called ‘Backspace’, a key that, if pressed on a modern computer keyboard, deletes previously-typed letters.
So what’s the point?
The backspace key shifted the carriage back one or more typespaces when it was necessary to type in more text on a particular line (such as when filling out forms and so-forth).
Typewriters are complex machines. What are the various elements of a typewriter called?
The bed of keys is obviously the keyboard. The long thing that slides back and forth along the top of the machine is the carriage. The semicircular row of typebars (that fly up when a key is pressed) is called the basket. The two rollers on either side that scroll in the paper are called the platen-knobs. The round drum on the top of the carriage which the paper curls around is called the platen. The tray behind the platen which the paper rests on is the paper-table.
On the left of the carriage are two levers. They are the carriage-release lever, and the carriage-return lever. The release-lever sends the carriage back to the starting position. The carriage-return lever starts a new line. More modern typewriters chucked out the return-lever and the carriage-release lever performed both functions simultaneously.
The two tabs that held the paper against the platen (to stop it wiggling around) were called the paper-fingers. To get the paper-fingers to release their grip on your hard work, you had the paper-release lever. To shift the carriage freely from left to right, you had the secondary carriage-lever, that allowed you to unlock the carriage and move it freely and then lock it back into place and resume typing (handy for creating centered headlines, lists, etc, without constantly pressing the spacebar and wasting valuable inches of ribbon).
When a key was pressed, a typebar would fly up and strike the ribbon and mark the paper. The middle of the typewriter, between the two round ribbon-spools had a small square or rectangular window set into it, which each key would aim for when it hit the paper. This was the type-guide. It did double-duty in ensuring that every key would hit the same spot and create a neat line of text, and it also held the typewriter ribbon in place, to stop it wiggling around and causing the typebars to miss it when they hit the paper.
For the typewriter to print the stuff that you wanted onto the paper, you had the typewriter ribbon, the ribbon that ran around the two ribbon-spools on either side of the typewriter, and which was impregnated with ink. Most ribbon-spools were two-toned. Black, and Red, depending on the colour of ink you wanted to use.
Last, but not least, you had every typewriter’s most famous component.
The point of the warning-bell was not to tell you to stop immediately and start a new line. The purpose of the bell was to tell you that you were reaching the end ofthe page. When the bell rang, you were obliged to finish typing your current word, then pull the carriage-release and push it back to the start to begin the new line.
The Evolution of the Typewriter
The typewriter lasted for over a hundred years. Well into the 1980s and 90s. It wasn’t until computers became really practical that typewriters stopped being used. But until then, you had everything from mechanical typewriters, electromechanical, totally electric typewriters…made from steel and then increasingly out of plastic, with all kinds of features that people invented and added to these machines to try and make them as practical and as efficient as possible.
I’m just old enough that when I was a child, I learnt to type, not on a computer, but actually on a typewriter. I used my parents’ old Canon electric typewriter to do my homework and type stories on. I still remember the electronic ‘Beep!’ of the warning buzzer and pressing the ‘Return’ key and watching the carriage slide back to the start-point. I even remember learning to change the typewriter ribbon by myself when the machine ran out of ink, and unravelling old ribbons and holding them up to the light to read all the words I’d typed on them!
Gosh, typewriters are fun to muck around with when you’re 10 years old…
Desktop and Portable Typewriters
The typewriter, just like the computer, came in two varieties. The desktop typewriter, and the portable typewriter. It’s pretty easy to tell which is which, purely based on size.
This is a desktop typewriter:
Made of solid steel, as you can see, this Remington 12 is quite a monster. These typewriters were so huge and heavy that in some cases, carpenters would build special typewriter desks just to support their massive weight, and to cope with the vibrations caused by thousands of keystrokes and hammer-strikes every single day.
It’s probably not surprising then, that typewriter manufacturers created portable typewriters.
This is the Remington Portable #7. As you can see, it’s MUCH smaller and more compact than the much chunkier and heavier desktop model up above. These typewriters were designed for journalists, teachers, office-workers and writers who did a lot of travelling. They were the laptop-computers of their day. And just like laptops, they came with their own carrying-cases.
The Typewriter Today
The typewriter finally ended in the 1990s when practical home-computers began to take over and the typewriter was consigned to history. But that doesn’t mean they’re forgotten. A lot of famous writers today still use them. Until he died a couple of years back, children’s author Brian Jacques (pronounced ‘Jakes’), creator of the fuzzy little Redwall series, would type up all his stories on a mechanical typewriter (because he found computers too complicated to use). Actor Tom Hanks is an avid typewriter collector.
Blind people still use a variation of the typewriter today. Perhaps you’ve seen one of these?
It’s called a Perkins Brailler. It’s a typewriter for the blind, and many blind people still use them today. Made of solid steel, these machines punch out the raised dots known as ‘braille’, which blind people read with their fingertips. The six keys, pressed in various combinations, punch out the six-dot braille code into special, extra-thick braille-paper (ordinary paper doesn’t work on a brailler because the force of the keys punching into the paper would rip it to pieces). The sliding toggle on the top is the carriage. Pressing on it slides it back to the left, or to any other point along the line, allowing a brailler to start typing on any point of the page.
I used to be acquainted with a number of blind students and although I never used one, I saw Perkins Braillers on a regular basis. They’re probably the closest thing to a typewriter still used on a daily basis today.
Last, but not least, let us never forget one of the most indelliable marks that the typewriter has left on modern society. A little piece of music written by composer Leroy Anderson in the middle of the last century, simply called…
…A piece of music that can only be played successfully with a vintage mechanical typewriter (they’re the only ones which create enough noise, and which have the distinctive sounds to work with the music).