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Origin of ordinary things: Typewriter

Some typewriters remain in use, even today, with many writers choosing them to avoid the distractions of the internet and boost creativity. / Net photo.

The invention of the typewriter was one of the most vital and revolutionary inventions of the 19th Century. Most were large and cumbersome, some resembling pianos in size and shape and were much slower to use than handwriting. This was until 1867 when the American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes read an article in the journal Scientific American describing a new British-invented machine and was inspired to construct what became the first practical typewriter.

According to Xavier University, Sholes, a Milwaukee newspaperman, poet, and part-time inventor, was the main creator of this machine in 1873. The Sholes & Glidden typed only in capital letters, and it introduced the QWERTY keyboard, which is very much with us today.


The keyboard was probably designed to separate frequently used pairs of type bars so that the type bars would not clash and get stuck at the printing point. The S&G was a decorative machine, boasting painted flowers and decals. It looked rather like a sewing machine, as it was manufactured by the sewing machine department of the Remington arms company.


The Sholes & Glidden had limited success, but its successor, the Remington, soon became a dominant presence in the industry.


A significant advance in the typewriter field was the development of the electric typewriter, basically a mechanical typewriter with the typing stroke powered by an electric-motor drive.

The first electrically operated typewriter, consisting of a printing wheel, was invented by Thomas A. Edison in 1872 and later developed into the ticker-tape printer. The electric typewriter as an office writing machine was pioneered by James Smathers in 1920.

In 1909 the first successful portables appeared on the market. By the 1950s practically every typewriter manufacturer produced a portable typewriter; all of them were type bar machines similar in operation to the office machines.

The need for high-speed printing machines to convert the output of computers to readable form prompted the introduction of a specialised high-speed form of “typewriter” in 1953.

In 1961 the first commercially successful typewriter based on a spherical type-carrier design was introduced by the International Business Machines Corporation.

Many other high-speed-output devices for computers were developed. Most of them utilise techniques that are remote from the typewriter field, in some cases using printing mediums other than paper. Speeds of up to 10,000 characters per second were attained by certain non-mechanical systems, which, although not actually typewriters, compete with typewriters as computer-output devices.

Some typewriters remain in use, even today, with many writers choosing them to avoid the distractions of the internet and boost creativity.

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