Little Bits of History

Clackity Clack

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 23, 2013
Early typewriter

Early typewriter

June 23, 1868: Christopher Latham Sholes receives US patent #79,265 for an improved type-writer. Sholes, born in Pennsylvania in 1819, moved to Wisconsin after completing an apprenticeship in printing. He became a newspaper publisher and politician – serving in both the Wisconsin State Senate and State Assembly. He was also an inventor. He received several patents over the years for various improvements and innovations to the typing machine.

The first patented machine had 10 short keys above 11 longer ones and were described by the inventor as “similar to the key-board of a piano.” The description has 21 keys for 26 letters. His next patent, also from 1868, has 36 keys – digits on the left and letters, alphabetically arranged, on the right. Later patents show keyboard layouts that are more familiar, tiered rows of keys. He is credited with the QWERTY keyboard, a legacy we still revere today.

Sholes sold his patent to the Remington Arms Company in 1872 for $12,000 (≈ $200,000 today). Already successful as an arms and sewing machine manufacturer, Remington started making the first commercial typewriters on March 1, 1873. Remington stopped producing sewing machines and typewriters and continued solely as arms merchants. They sold their typewriter interests to the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company, Inc. along with the rights to continue with the Remington name. They still produce office equipment along with electric razors.

Sholes originally had placed the keys on the board in alphabetical order. Typists, after mastering the technique and typing with some speed, kept entangling the keys as they struck against the paper. There are two theories for the new placement of the keys. The first is that it would slow down the typists and reduce key snags. The second is that the new arrangement physically placed the striking keys far enough apart to avoid locking. Since English has no diacritical marks, the keyboard is modified for other languages.

“Don’t be too harsh to these poems until they’re typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction.” – Dylan Thomas

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” – Isaac Asimov

“I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.” – English professor, Ohio University

“My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane.” – Graham Greene

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Computer keyboards are the progeny of typewriters but they also have teleprinters (or teletype) and keypunches in the “family tree”. Because the keyboard is not just a mechanical device delivering keystrokes to paper, there has to be a conveyance of electromechanical data entered by the user to reach the computer and eventually also the display. This takes more than just striking the keys and delivering ink to the paper rolled through the machine. The early computers would use keypunch devices and eventually migrated to what we think of as our usual input device. Today, we have the convenience of touch pad typing on many of our handheld devices and they often still have the QWERTY layout for the letters.

Also on this day: Mutiny on the Discovery – In 1611, Henry Hudson’s crew mutinies.
Lorena and John – In 1993, domestic violence made the world headlines.
Banff – In 1887, the Rocky Mountains Park Act of Canada was passed.

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