The Typewriter – “that almost sentient mechanism”

Modern computers allow a single individual to do amazing things. But before the computer, there was the typewriter.

Underwood no 5There are a lot of people around now who may have never seen or used a typewriter. They don’t know what it was like to fix typographical errors or remember to leave space for footnotes and page numbers. They haven’t experienced the agony of having to retype an entire document or page just to insert a single word, sentence, or paragraph. They may not understand that designing, much less creating booklets and brochures, meant time spent with a printer – the business, not the machine! There were no fancy spreadsheet functions that tallied up numbers, much less turning those numbers into pie charts or graphs with a few clicks – there was just the tab key to keep the numbers in line and a calculator to add them all up.

In its day, the introduction of the typewriter into American businesses may have been just as transformative in its day as the introduction of the computer was just a few decades ago. This quote from the September 14, 1884 Salt Lake Herald shows how early typewriters proved their value:

Perhaps no invention of modern times has done so much to relieve business men of the great amount of pen-work drudgery to be done in every business, as the standard Remington type-writer. Thousands of these excellent machines are in daily use throughout the country, giving the utmost satisfaction claimed for them. An office boy, for instance, with but two month practice on one of these machines can accomplish more work than two rapid penmen; besides do it in a neater, and more attractive and legible manner. With but little more practice he can perform more than three men’s work. Half a dozen copies may also be written at once as easily as one.

Business men are fully aware of the many advantages in these writers, and are very generally adopting them as veritable savers of time, money, and labor.

While the history of typewriter development can be traced as far back as the 16th century and Francesco Rampazzetto, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the modern version took shape. There were many inventors who were looking at machines that could type, among them William Austin Burt (patent 5,581X) and Alfred Ely Beach (patent number US15,164), Agostino Fantoni, Pellegrino Turri, Charles Thurber, Giuseppe Ravizza, and Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen. In the U.S., one of the first commercially made typewriters was patented in 1868 (US 79,265) by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule (Sholes also had a separate patent in 1878 US 207,559). The 1868 patent was sold to E. Remington & Sons (then known for manufacturing sewing machines) who began production on March 1, 1873 under the name Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. This model eventually became the Remington Typewriter and it is this machine that popularized the QWERTY layout we are still using on our computer keyboards.

Woman seated with Underwood typewriter. (1918)

Woman seated with Underwood typewriter. (1918)

Miss Remington. (1908)

Miss Remington. (1908)


The early success of the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer led to competitor models, and by 1901 typewriters were being used in many places. A quote from a 1901 New York Tribune article called it “that almost sentient mechanism” and made it clear that the typewriter had already become an essential tool for many businesses. One of the most popular models was the Underwood No. 5 introduced at the turn of the century by the Underwood Typewriter Company. Millions of the No. 5 were manufactured and it spawned its own imitations from Royal and Oliver.

The importance and popularity of the No. 5 can be seen in its advertisements. Some of my favorites were those that included the results of typewriting competitions and those that included the names of companies that bought their product. Another favorite was an advertisement from 1915 that indicated the No. 5 had won First Grand Prize at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. During WWI their advertisements touted the typewriter’s contribution to the war effort – one encouraged people to get involved using their typing skills, while another included the number of their typewriters used by the Allies. Production on the No. 5 ceased in 1932 with the advent of newer models featuring more sophisticated features. The company was sold in 1963 and eventually the Underwood name, along with the typewriter itself, slowly faded away, replaced by computers and software programs.

Cut book "B," typwriter secrets. (1912) Includes images from: Underwood, Royal Remington, Smith Premier, Oliver, L. C. Smith & Bros., Monarch, and Fox.

Cut book “B,” typwriter secrets. (1912) Includes images from: Underwood, Royal Remington, Smith Premier, Oliver, L. C. Smith & Bros., Monarch, and Fox.

Today there are a many books on how to use particular software programs and the Internet has many videos offering users tips and tricks. While there were no videos, there were many how-to books on stenography and typing – I remember using one when I took typing in high school. There were manuals on different typing methods like Gregg, manuals for beginners and more advanced users, and manuals on increasing speeds and doing tabular typing. There was also guidance for the first year typing teacher as well as teaching typing at the elementary and college levels. Then there was a title like R. E. Tulloss’ The New Way in Typewriting; A Course of Instruction in Typewriting Efficiency for the Development of Accuracy, High Speed, and Ease of Operation which illustrated special finger exercises. A number of the manuals also included some historical background, but were also used to promote individual products. In 1892 Remington wrote a lesson-style book followed by another in 1911. Underwood published Typewriter Bookkeeping, useful for those producing invoices and office financial records, while Royal published a title that was both a history and catalog.

What I found really interesting was that the typewriter had become so important that people were already writing histories as early as 1908 when George Carl Mares wrote The History of the Typewriter: Being an Illustrated Account of the Origin, Rise and Development of the Writing Machine. On the 50th anniversary, the commemorative title The Story of the Typewriter 1873-1923 was published by the Herkimer County History Society in New York, expressing pride in a local citizen Christopher Sholes and the Sholes-Glidden company. Even the American branch of the Newcomen Society, which celebrated American business achievement, wrote a brief history in 1948. Later titles like Wonderful Writing Machine and Century of the Typewriter each added more to the history. While it is possible another history of the typewriter may be written, The Iron Whim, which declared typewriting dead in the first line of the introduction, may be one of the last.

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