I have had the pleasure of meeting some colourful and portable not-so-old typewriters and their owners recently. It had me wondering about the history of these objects that replaced the pen, and became a writer’s stepping stone to computers and portable laptops.
The following item, published by Pearsons Weekly, and reprinted by the Evelyn Observer, and South East Bourke Record on 8 December 1893, outlines the history of the machine, twenty years after its appearance, in the first flush of its commercial existence.
THE HISTORY OF THE TYPEWRITER.
The invention of the typewriter, like that of every other epoch-making machine, was not a matter of a few years. The production of a practical writing machine was the result of more than a century and a half of scientific experiments, culminating in the construction of a successful instrument some twenty years ago. The first attempt in this direction of which we have any record was made by an Englishman, Henry Mills, in 1714. His specification was lodged in the Patent Office in that year, but as it was unaccompanied by drawings,we have little or no knowledge of its mechanical details.
In 1784 a French machine for embossing letters upon paper for the use of the blind was invented. Between that date and 1843 there is no record of any attempt to make a typewriter. In the later year a patent was taken out by Charles Thurber, an American, who constructed a practical, though extremely cumbrous writing machine, the types of which were arranged round the under surface of a horizontal wheel, which wheel the operator [would move] until the required typo was over the printing point on the paper. He then depressed the corresponding key, and the character was thus printed.
In 1856 a Mr. A. E. Beach (afterwards one of the proprietors of ‘The Scientific American’) patented an instrument for embossing letters on paper for the use of the blind. The appearance of this machine is noteworthy because its main principle was somewhat similar to that embodied in later writing machines. ”The typo-base was arranged round a circle, and converged to the centre when operated by means of keys. Numerous attempts in the same direction followed, but none were successful until 1867, when a typewriter was constructed by three inventors. The chief of these, Mr. C. Latham Sholes, had had his attention called to an article in The Scientific American, relative to the writing machine invented by a Mr. John Pratt, and exhibited before the Society of Arts in London. In this article it was stated that the inventor of a successful writing machine would not only secure a fortune, but would confer a blessing upon humanity. This article, however, did little more than suggest the construction of such a machine, for the typewriter upon which Sholes set to work, with the co-operation of another inventor, S W Soule, and a capitalist, Carlos Glidden, was constructed on entirely different lines. The writing was done by means of pivoted types set in a circle and capable of being brought separately to the centre of that circle. In September, 1867, the first machine was finished. It was practical, inasmuch as letters were written with it, but was so far from perfect that between 1867 and 1873 Sholes was constantly employed in developing details. Some twenty-five or thirty experimental typewriters were made, each a little better than its predecessors, but all full of defects.
Meanwhile Glidden and Soule had long since retired from the concern ; but Sholes had confidence in the feasibility of the undertaking, and persevered, with the result that in 1873 his machine was considered sufficiently practical to be taken for manufacture on a large scale to Messrs. E. Remington and Sons, of Ilion, N.Y. “That the machine did good work at this stage is evident from the fact that it was regularly used by a large number of professional men, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, &c. But many improvements required to be made before the machine could be generally acceptable, and for the majority of these improvements Sholes is responsible.
In 1882 the commercial success of the machine really began, when all rights connected with the Remington model were acquired by Messrs [.illegible.] Beemans [.illegible]. At that time only some 1,500 machines were being made by them per annum, whereas at the present time over 800 Remingtons are being made every week, a complete typewriter for every five minutes of the working day. The growth of the industry has been largely due to the fact that commercial firms and public companies, as well as professional men, have come to appreciate the advantages attaching to the use of the typewriter. This may be illustrated in our own country. In some fifty Government departments, and by upwards of thirty British railways the Remington is used, the London and North-Western Company alone having over one hundred and fifty in constant use. Within the next few years there will scarcely be a commercial firm of any repute without its equipment of typewriters.
The first commercial typewriter used a treadle to shift to the next line as this photograph via The Virtual Typewriter Museum of one of the earlier (Sholes and Glidden) models shows.
For those interested in all things typewriter and more, head over here to oz Typewriter whose curator, Robert Messenger, also owns the Australian Typewriter Museum.
My favourite discovered article in this search comes from the South Australian Register of 23 December 1867. This time, it’s from Punch, clipped by the editor of this newspaper during the quiet of the Christmas season. The author makes some interesting future predictions about other objects to assist ‘thought-hatching’.
PICKINGS PROM LONDON PUNCH.
GOOD NEWS FOR BAD WRITERS
It is surprising what discoveries are made in the dead season. Here is one for instance, the account of which has recently been snipped out by the scissors of many a sub-editor :—
“Writing superceded: Mr. Pratt, of Alabama, is the inventor of a type-writing machine lately exhibited to the London Society of Art, which is said to print a man’s thoughts twice as fast as he can write them with the present process. By a sort of piano arrangement the letters are brought in contact with carbonised paper, which is moved by the same manipulation.”
Every author his own printer! What a happy state of things! No more struggles to write legibly with nibless tavern pens; no more labour in deciphering the hieroglyphs of hasty writers. Literary work will be in future merely play— on the piano. The future Locke may write his essays by a touch upon the keys.
In this inventive age there really is no saying where discovery will stop. Now that authors are to put their thoughts in print with twice the pace that they can write them, perhaps ere long they will be able to put their works in type without so much as taking the trouble to compose them. A thought-hatching easy chair may very likely be invented, by the help of which an author may sit down at his ease before his thought-printing piano, and play away ad libitum whatever may occur to him. Different cushions may be used for different kinds of composition, some stuffed with serious thoughts, fit for sermons or reviews, and others with light fancies fit for works of fiction, poetry, or fun. By a judicious choice of cushions an author will be able to sit down to his piano, and play a novel in three volumes twice or thrice a week, besides knocking off a leader every morning for a newspaper, and issuing every fortnight a bulky epic poem, or a whole encyclopedia complete within a month.