Relic: Typewriter

One of the major inventions in history was the printing press. It allowed publishers to roll out copies of books quickly at a far lower cost than writing each one by hand. While its predecessor (the movable type) was around 500 years before the movable-type printing press in Europe, technological advances have led some tech historians to believe that the typewriter was invented no less than 52 times in various forms and shapes.

The invention’s beginnings can be traced back as far as 1575, when Francesco Rampazetto invented a machine that could be considered the first typewriter, the scrittura tattile (writing touch). By 1714, inventor Henry Mill obtained a patent for a typewriter-like machine. The machine was actually created. Writing during the time, the patent said, “He hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and public records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.”

Italians would go on to dominate the invention of the typewriter in the early 19th century. One type of typewriter, invented by Agostino Fantoni, was specifically designed for the blind in 1802. Pellegrino Turri invented a typwriter that used carbon paper for ink in 1808, although it is not clear if he invented it for a blind friend of his or improved on Fantoni’s design. By 1823, Pietro Conti di Cilavegna invented the tachigrafo (tachograph). However, the modern typewriter itself came to an unusual form factor: the Hansen Writing Ball, invented by Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen of Denmark in 1865. This was the first typewriter manufactured commercially, and it came in the shape of a ball. This was commercially sold in 1870 and Malling-Hansen even won awards at the 1873 and 1878 world expositions in Vienna and Paris.

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter was the first typewriter to look like what we know to be the typewriter today. It was invented by American inventors Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Sole in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1878. Sholes himself did not even use or recommend his own invention, saying it looked like “a cross between a piano and kitchen table.” The invention was the first to use the term typewriter, and had the modern QWERTY keyboard layout we see on our keyboards today.

The Remington No. 2 in 1878 was also the first typewriter to use the Shift button, which allowed differentiation between uppercase and lowercase letters, and allowed for usage of special characters such as the percent (%) and ampersand (&) buttons. By the early 20th century, typewriters also had the Caps Lock key and Tab keys. The electric typewriter was introduced at the turn of the century as well, but it was not until 1914 that James Field Smathers developed the power-operated typewriter. He sold the model in 1923 to the Northeast Electric Company of Rochester. Electric typewriters made a very huge step forward: removing the direct mechanical connection between the keys and the element that struck the paper. Electric typewriters remained popular in the first half of the 20th century, with IBM and Remington Rand becoming the leading producers of typewriters.

By the 1980s, electronic typewriters became popular, with some models even having a floppy disk reader and a small screen. Personal computers and printers largely took over for typewriters by the late 1980s. However, typewriters have somehow survived into the 21st century, largely by government agencies, once again showing the lag between government and technological innovation. Latin America and Africa still use mechanical typewriters to this day due to the lack of access to electricity in some areas on those continents. An interesting setting where typewriters are still used is correctional facilities, where prisoners are prohibited from using computers or telecommunication equipment.

The typewriter was a very important tool in advancing both personal and business communications throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and its legacy lives on in our modern-day keyboards. Much of the mainstays of our keyboards (such as the Shift, Tab, and Caps Lock keys) date back to the development of the typewriter.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE November 2018 Issue.

Words by Ronel Bautista

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