Typewriter Class 1893
Typewriter Class 1893 (Courtesy of the Weil Archive)

first typewriters

Henry Mills typewriter patent of 1714.

In 1714, British engineer Henry Mills obtains the first patent (No. 376) for a ‘Machine for Transcribing Letters’ on paper that are equal to the quality of printing. His words clearly convey what a typewriter would be and they are regarded as the first description of a typewriter.

‘An artificial machine or method for the impressing one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print’.

His machine was apparently never made.

painting of Pellegrino Turri
Pellegrino Turri
Pellegrino Turri typed letter from circa 1808.
A typed letter from Pellegrino Turri to the Countess circa 1808

The Italian Pellegrino Turri made the first documented typewriter around 1808. He supplied his typewriter to his blind friend, Countess Carolina Da Fivizzano, so she could communicate with him when she moved to another city. Some of the letters have survived and are the earliest known typed letters.


John Burt's Typographer of 1829
John Burt’s Typographer of 1829

The first American patent belongs to John Burt of Michigan who made a typing machine he called the typographer in 1829. It did not use a keyboard but used a lever to select the characters. It is made predominantly of wood and is the shape and size of a bread box. It was not commercially made but he did receive some positive press in the New York Commercial Advertiser “a simple, cheap, and pretty machine for printing letters, should it be found to fully answer the description given of it.”

Charles Thurber's typewriter from 1843
Charles Thurber’s ‘Patent Printer’ of 1843

Charles Thurber of Massachusetts took out a patent in 1843 for a machine called the ‘Patent Printer’. It used a large rotating horizontal wheel with a plunger for each character positioned around its perimeter. Underneath this wheel was the first cylindrical platen or roller to appear on a typing machine. It moved laterally and would become the standard design for paper handling on all typewriters.

John Jones Typographer from 1853
John Jones’s ‘Mechanical Typographer’ of 1853


John Jones of New York called his 1853 machine the ‘Mechanical Typographer’. The illustrated ad for the Typographer proudly states. “For Printing Letters, Poetry, Cards, Contracts, Lessons, Compositions, Notes etc, as fast as the majority of people can writer with a Pen.”

This typewriter went into production with 130 being made before the entire factory was destroyed by fire. There are just two known to have survived, including Jones’s own prototype machine which is in the Dietz Collection at the MPM and the other which is in a private collection.

Malling Hansen Typing Ball
Malling Hanson’s ‘Typing Ball’ of 1870

In 1870 Danish clergyman Malling Hansen invented a machine he called the ‘Typing Ball’. It looked like something out of mad scientist’s lab with a half sphere dome covered in type plungers. It was made for blind typists to type for sighted people to read. Various versions were manufactured with around 500 being manufactured. This was, dispite its marginal success, not the typewriter that would establish the typewriter as one of the most important inventions of the century. It was still business as usual with a legion of clerks. The future success of the typewriter would have to wait until the appearance of the Sholes and Glidden in 1874 and even then, it was not until the mid 1890s that things really took off.

Photograph of Christopher Lathem Sholes the inventor of the Sholes and Glidden typewriter.
Christopher Latham Sholes
photo of the Sholes & Glidden typewriter 0f 1874
Sholes and Glidden Typewriter – 1874

The standard big black typewriters that we know today were the result of many years of mechanical evolution throughout the 19thcentury. In the early years between 1800 and 1875 there were just a few inventors and none of their typewriters were made in any quantity and they did not awaken the world to this revolutionary machine there was a deepening feeling that their typing machine would never be manufactured. However, their fortunes would change when Densmore and Yost presented the Type Writer to Remington & Sons of Ilion New York. The fit was perfect because Remington & Sons were not only were able to produce machines to fine tolerances and in quantity but with the Civil War over and the demand for guns down they were interested in new ventures.

After the meeting, Philo Remington asked Mr. Benedict, a Remington executive, “What do you think of it?” as they left the room. He replied, “That machine is very crude, but there is an idea     there that will revolutionize business.” Remington asked, “Do you think we ought to take it up?” Benedict said, “We must on no account let it get away. It isn’t necessary to tell these people that we are crazy over the invention, but I’m afraid I am pretty nearly so.” A tentative agreement was reached that day.

Remington assigned two of their best mechanics to turn the wooden prototype into a beautiful metal production machine,adorned with hand painted floral and pastoral scenes,and by 1874 the first of 4,000 Sholes & Glidden Type Writers came out of the factory.

Sholes and Glidden typewriter

A photograph of the QWERTY keyboard on the Sholes and Glidden typewriter.

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter of 1874 was the first typewriter with the QWERTY keyboard. The purpose of this layout was to minimize the type bars from clashing with each other, by separating the type bars for letters that are frequently typed in sequence, such as T and H.

Attempts were made to introduce more efficient keyboard layouts once typewriter designs had evolved and the jamming of the type bars was no longer such a problem but it was too late; people had already learned one way and understandably did not want to learn again. The good news though is that the QWERTY keyboard is actually quite an efficient layout for speed.

It is interesting to note that the word ‘typewriter’ can be typed using only the top row of the QWERTY keyboard. It is rumoured that this was done to allow the typewriter salesmen to quickly type the word ‘typewriter’ to impress the curious eyes watching. In fact, it is almost certainly the case as the odds of having these letters randomly appear in the same row is very low.

Please note that the Sholes and Glidden keyboard only has uppercase characters. The Remington 2 typewriter of 1878 would have a shifting carriage giving both upper and lower case characters.

Sholes and Glidden letterhead from 1875.

The social custom for hand written correspondence was firmly rooted in the Victorian age and the reaction to early typed correspondence and the break with this etiquette was generally not favorable.

J.P. Johns, a Texas insurance man and banker who bought a Remington in the late 1870s, received this tepid response from one of his insurance agents.

“I received your communication and will act accordingly. There is a matter I would like to speak to you about. I realize, Mr. Johns, that I do not have the education which you have. However, until your last letter I have always been able to read the writing. I do not think it was necessary then, nor will it be in the future, to have your letters to me taken up to the printers and set up like a hand bill. I will be able to read your writing and am deeply chagrined to think you thought such a course necessary.”

As the years went by and the rapid business growth strained the capacities of existing office organizations, managers grew more willing to gamble on laborsaving practices and to let old etiquette slip away. The typewriter’s extraordinary offering of speed, legibility and the means to make more than one copy at once could not be ignored.

One of the very first Sholes and Glidden typewriter shops – New York, circa 1876

Being first is not always easy; the Sholes & Glidden was not a quick hit and sold very slowly for the first two years and then with only moderate success. New technology needs time to be seen and understood in any age and as is often the case, not even the inventors fully understand the merits of their invention.

Here are the main reasons for this very slow beginning.

  • The Sholes & Glidden sold for $125, a huge amount at the time. A horse drawn carriage cost between $30 and $75 and an upright piano could be had for $100.
  • Surprisingly, typewriters were not initially marketed for the general business office but were seen as labor saving devices for ‘Ministers, lawyers, authors, stenographers and “… all who desire to escape the drudgery of the pen”.
  • The social custom for hand written correspondence was firmly rooted in the Victorian age and the reaction to early typed correspondence and the break with this etiquette was generally not favourable.
  • There were very few professional typists to utilize the speed of the typewriter.

A menagerie of typewriters

Photograph of the Columbia 2 typewriter.
Columbia 2 typewriter – 1886

The index typewriter has no keyboard. Instead a dial, knob, or selector was used to select the character to be printed. There are a number of theses index typewrites on display.

It might seem strange that index typewriters were made when keyboard typewriters were available. Typing was certainly slower on an index typewriter but the cost to buy them was much less than a keyboard machine, ranging in price from $5 to $40. Keyboard typewrites were very expensive, costing $60 to $100 during the 1880s and 1890s. In comparison a clerk’s wage was $5 a week, a horse drawn carriages cost between $40 & $70 and a piano- organ cost $65.00.

Sears Roebuck catalogue 1902 – A $100 typewriter in the 1880s was a huge expense.

Photograph of the Odell 1 typewriter from above.
Odell 1 typewriter – 1889

With few secondhand machines to be had, a less expensive machine was needed. Thus, the index typewriter was born.

If one had poor handwriting speed was not the only issue as one could now produce legible written work. The index typewriter was popular for small businesses and home use during the 1880s and 1890s, with many remarkable designs being produced. With the availability of increasing numbers of secondhand keyboard typewriters and the major advantage of touch-typing becoming evident during the 1890s, the market for the index typewriter quickly disappeared by 1900.

Photograph of the Lambert 1 typewriter.
Lambert 1 typewriter – 1902

Typewriters of recent times all look and work pretty much the same, four rows of straight keys, single shift, and ‘front strike visible’ (one can see what one types as they type).  What if though, you had never seen a typewriter before and were asked to design one … how might it look? During the 1800s, the sky was the limit for the typewriter pioneers as they created all sorts of wonderous and clever designs to get the printed letter onto the page.

Various experimental typewriters were built and used during the first 75 years of the

19thcentury but the heyday for typewriter experimentation and manufacturing took place during the 1880s and 1890s, when the typewriter slowly became accepted and then became essential for the rapidly growing business world.

During this period, over 500 hundred different typewriter designs were patented, with over 300 being manufactured. Among them were machines with curved keyboards, double keyboards and some with no keyboards at all! There were notable successes and failures!

Great Innovations

Photograph of the Crandall 1 typewriter.
Crandall 1 typewriter – 1883

A great example of a design feature that had success in two centuries is the single type element that first appeared on the Crandall 1 typewriter in 1883.

Period illustration of the Crandall New Model typewriter's cylindrical type element.
First single type element (Crandall 1 typewriter) – 1883

A single type element is a form that has all of the characters to be typed on its surface, so typewriters with a single type element do not have individual type bars but instead have a single type element that moves into position for each key pushed on the keyboard.

The single type element design would appear on many of the great 19thcentury typewriters including the Hammond, Blickensderfer and Munson. The single type element gave reliable alignment in printing and also importantly allowed for a quick change of font by changing one type element with another.

Photograph of the single type element, affectionately nicknamed the golf ball, from IBM's Selectric typewriter of 1961.
Single type element ‘golf ball’ from the IBM Selectric typewriter – 1961.

The single type element would disappear soon after the Underwood came on the market in 1896 but reappeared in a big way on the electric IBM Selectric of 1961. The single type element on the Selectric was affectionally nicknamed the ‘golf ball’, which like its predecessor could be quickly switched to change the font.

Photograph of the Victor typewriter.
Victor typewriter – 1889

The Victor typewriter of 1889 was the first typewriter to use a daisy wheel

A daisy wheel is a single type element that looks like a small bicycle wheel. The Victor’s daisy wheel has brass fingers radiating from the central hub (just like spokes on a bicycle wheel) which have hardened rubber characters on their ends. The daisy wheel rotates into position when characters are selected and then, when in position, a little rod pushes the brass spoke and hardened rubber character against the paper to type.

Photograph of the Victor typewriter's daisy wheel.
First daisy wheel (Victor typewriter) – 1889

Some mechanisms, that had success in the 19thcentury would disappear only return with greater success in the 20thcentury. A great example is the daisy wheel, which was used on a very few 19thcentury  typewriters, that would disappear during the 1890s and then would come came back in a big way on the first computer printers in the 1980s.

Photograph of a computer printer's daisy wheel from the 1980s.
A daisy wheel from a 1980s computer printer which is made out of plastic

novelty to necessity

Photograph of a businessman with a Hammond typewriter, 1896 - 1900.
Studio photograph of a typist with a Hammond typewriter, 1896 – 1900 (Courtesy of the Weil Archive)

Surprisingly, typewriters were not initially seen as machines for the businessman as the independent businessman of the time was just emerging as a new demographic and the first typewriter salesmen did not see this group as primary users of the typewriter. Big government was seen as a good place to start but ironically, with all of the set protocols for communicating, which of course did not include typewriters, the US government did not buy any typewriters and was one of the last organizations to adopt the typewriter. ‘The Typewriter World’ magazine in 1897 complained “The records of State legislators and of Congress are scrawled on paper with a pen, just as they have been since 1777, when the first Congress assembled at Baltimore.”

With the failure to sell to the government, the early salesmen set their sights on the following people, (as indicated in a period advertisement), court reporters, lawyers, editors, authors, and clergymen. Only on the last line does it mention that “All men of business can perform the labor of letter writing with much saving of valuable time.”

However, as the typewriter became indispensible, all manner of organizations that depended on written records desired these new machines for speed, legibility, and manifolding (making multiple copies at once). The bureaucracy of the standard practice had been overcome and typewriters were, by the mid 1880s, used in great numbers in offices, military services, medical institutions, churches, publishers, schools, and courts. Writers and journalists also discovered the advantages in making the switch from pen and ink.

Photograph of an office scene showing clerks still handwriting in the presence of a Caligraph typewriter.
Caligraph 2 typewriter seen in the First National Bank, Memphis, with clerks still writing by hand – 1891 (Courtesy of the Weil Archive)

As the years went by and the rapid business growth strained the capacities of existing office organizations, managers grew more willing to gamble on laborsaving practices and to let old etiquette slip away. The typewriter’s extraordinary offering of speed, legibility and the means to make more than one copy at once could not be ignored.

A big problem with the introduction of the Sholes & Gliddens was that there were very few professional typists to utilize the benefits of the typewriter. This situation would improve with the first typing school opening at the YWCA in New York City in 1881, with many more schools to open nationally in quick order. By 1886, just five years after the upturn in demand, almost every sizable office employed at least one typist. The typewriter was no longer a novelty but a necessity.

Photograph showing a room full of women typists from 1915.
The typewriter had become a necessity – 1915 (Courtesy of the Weil Archive)

The Beginning of standardization

Photograph of the Remington 2 typewriter.
Remington 2 typewriter – 1878

The Sholes & Glidden typewriter (Remington 1) had seen an increase in sales from its very slow start but there were limits to its success as it typed only in uppercase and in addition it would often need adjusting to keep the typing aligned. In 1878 the Remington 2 was introduced sporting upper and lowercase characters. It was much  more reliable as well. By this time, typewriters had begun to enter business offices in ever increasing numbers as the times continued to catch up with this revolutionary machine.

The Remington 2 is of the design called a blind-writer where the type bars swing up to the underside of the platen (roller), so to see what you had typed you would have to stop typing and lift up the carriage to look underneath. Still the saying on the logo observently states that ‘To Save Time is to Lengthen Life’. Despite this limiting design, the model 2 would sell in vast numbers and would became the ‘Model T of typewriters’ right up to the beginning of the new century.

Remington 2 logo
The Remington logo with the wonderful motto “To Save Time is to Lengthen Life ”
Photograph of the Daugherty typewriter.
Daugherty typewriter- 1893

The Daugherty typewriter of 1893 would present for the first time the three essential design features that would be found on most 20thcentury typewriters. These features are, four rows of straight keys, a single shift, and type bars that strike the front of the platen giving visible typing.

Even with these winning design features the Daugherty was not a typewriter that one could type fast on as the key levers were very long and wobbly. Still the configuration of having the type bars laid out in a semi-circle down in front of the carriage and platen was a revelation that eluded so many clever typewriter pioneers. It is quite remarkable that this approach was so hard to see, especially when other typewriters such as the Franklin (amongst many) had the semi-circle arrangement of type bars but they were positioned in awkward and less functional ways. The Daugherty, despite its only modest success, had solved once and for all a most important question, where is the best place to put the type bars on a typewriter. It would only be a few years later in 1896 when Franz Wagner would create the milestone Underwood 1 with these same design aspects that were pioneered on the Daugherty and with that, the wild west of typewriters would soon be over.Daugherty typewriter period advertisement.

Photograph of the Underwood 1 typewriter.
Underwood 1 typewriter – 1896

The Underwood typewriter was invented by Franz Wagner, a brilliant engineer who had already designed the Caligraph (1880).  The Underwood appeared in 1896 and would quickly set the standard for the next century. It was a typewriter with the correct design features, four rows of straight keys, a single shift, and type bars that strike the front of the platen giving visible typing. It also had a remarkably light and fast touch. Its was simply superb to type on.

The Underwood would usher in the new century and put an end to this period of rich diversity in typewriter history within a few short years.

Underwood 1 typewriter period advertisement.


Close Menu