“Striking” facts about the typewriter

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Typewriters, or the ideas of typewriters have been around since the fourteenth century. In the beginning, more than one hundred prototype models were created by over 50 inventors around the world. The first such patent was issued to Henry Mill, a prominent English engineer, in 1714. The first American patent for what might be called a typewriter was granted to William Austin Burt, of Detroit, in 1829.

However, the breakthrough came in 1867 when Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee with the assistance of his friends Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule invented their first typewriter. Sholes’ prototype model, which is still preserved by the Smithsonian Institution, incorporated many if not all the ideas from the early pioneers. The machine “looked something like a cross between a small piano and kitchen table” as one historian observed.

Image credit: Drawing for a Typewriter, 06/23/1868. This is the printed patent drawing for a typewriter invented by Christopher L. Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and J. W. Soule. From the National Archives. Brian0918, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor Note: For more interesting history on the Sholes typewriter and the beginnings of it, check out this PDF of sholes-glidden typewriter from ASME.

 Mark Twain was the first author to submit a book manuscript in typed copy, having bought a typewriter in 1874. The typewriter became a symbol of a certain type of writer, and many are still preserved in the estates or museums of well-known authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard KiplingGeorge Bernard Shaw, and Ian Fleming.

The original typewriter’s most ubiquitous impact on modern society, seen all around the world on computer keyboards and mobile phones, is its key layout known as QWERTY. Christopher Latham Sholes originally tried an alphabetical layout in his prototypes, but the keys would jam; his solution shifted three of the most commonly used letters (E, T, and A) to the left hand, resulting in a design that slowed typists down and avoided jamming on the earliest machines.

Famed polymath and horologist Rupert T. Gould (1890-1948) was fascinated with typewriters his entire life; by the 1940s, he had one of the largest collections in existence—at least 71—and wrote the first independent history of the machine, called The Story of the Typewriter in 1949.

Research Note: This blog post features content from across Oxford’s online reference platforms, including American National Biography OnlineOxford Handbooks Online, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies, and Oxford Reference.

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