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Woman seated with Underwood typewriter
Woman seated with Underwood typewriter. (1918)

The Typewriter – “that almost sentient mechanism”

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

Photograph of an Underwood number 5 typewriter

There 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.

Image features a seated woman writing next to a Remington typewriter
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.

Includes images from of parts of an Underwood typewriter derived from its patent
Cut book “B,” typewriter 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.

Comments (9)

  1. The products of our experiences and efforts reflect the sum total of many smaller experiences and our mood, our attitude, some might say soul, is imprinted upon these products. Is it any wonder that Stradivarius made his beautiful violins with a chisel and hammer, or that Hemingway produced the “Old Man and the Sea” before the advent of Microsoft Word… and yet so often we rush the developments of technology without understanding what is lost. I think this latest trend toward moving back to the typewriter reflects a broader consensus growing among people that, yes, while technology is great, it isn’t everything…

  2. This is a very appealing essay — thank you so much for mining the Library’s wonderful collections to assemble this story!

  3. Refreshingly glad that my Dad taught me typing on manual typewriters. I thought the electric typewriter was heaven till I moved on to Macs, PCs, iPads, Chromebooks, etc. Very thankful for them all.

  4. As a writer, I can’t imagine using an old Underwood today. But I have two–and I cherish them. They are works of art, memorials to a different era when the tactile clatter of these beauties meant thoughts were turning into wonderous prose.

  5. Enjoyed using a manual typewriter when learning
    to. use the keyboard/typing. Nothing like an authentic snap, efficient and economical . As a teacher this was affordable!!

  6. Thanks for this article, and the Facebook page about it with the old Underwood photo. It brought back many memories of leapfrogging technologies! That literal museum piece looks like the Underwood I learned on; brought from the hotel where my father worked in the 1960s when they stepped up to more modern ones, maybe even electrics.

    It was the first of a dozen or so typewriters I owned or worked at before I bought my first computer in ’82, an Osborne 1. For an extra $500 or so (!) it came bundled with the only *electric* typewriter I ever owned, an Olympia that had been modified to be a “serial” daisy-wheel “letter-quality” printer connected to the computer.

    This item from the Library of Congress inspired me to update my own introductory page for a 1951 radio drama about the invention of the typewriter. I hope you enjoy it and its links to other sources. See

  7. Articles online usually refer to the earliest commercial use of the typewriter. When was it in widespread personal use? For example, in writing letters? Already in the 1890s?
    Thank you.

  8. Mr. Duling – I have done a little bit of searching and they really don’t seem to talk about home use as much – most either about office use or about big changes – intro of the Underwood #5 and the IBM Selectric. Both may have upped the in-the-home numbers because both changed things radically and had such longevity. I will say that given the ads that ran during WWI looking for typerwriters to use for the war effort that they were ubiquitous. I am going to keep looking at this. I might have to get creative.

  9. It seems that the WWII war effort needed 1935 and new models because manufacture of them had stopped. A 1943 AJC/NYTimes article that indicates the government was looking for at least 600,000 machines from business, schools, and homes, so it seems likely that they expected that many out there. I found an interesting Smithsonian article about the typewriter. What is interesting is that they make note that portable typewriters being offered in colors and streamlined to make them more attractive to buyers looking for them for the home. I found a 1950 article from a homemaker that though the typewriter was essential for her doing personal bills and even equated it with her sewing machine. I did see a number of short pieces about house burglaries from the 40’s and 50’s where they typewriter was stolen.

    While I found two articles from 1966 that looked at sales they didn’t differentiate overly much so it is possible that the company didn’t report much on the differences between office, schools, home because they may not have known in many cases. One articles indicated sales were very strong in the 1960’s – industry wide sales were about 2,300,000 and expected to be over 2.5 for 1966 – while that seems to be worldwide – those numbers are likely no just sales to business/government. A NYTimes article (5/15/1966) indicates that the electric typewriter seemed to really improve sales for the industry – 10 years prior to that, the industry was still alive but not “robust” abut between 1960 and 1965 sales grew 7%. It went on to say that while IBM introduced an electric typewriter in the 1930’s, it wasn’t until the mid-1950’s that it seems to have been more widely accepted and really took off in the 1960’s (so much so that IBM got competitors which it really didn’t have prior to that). Portable typewriter sales also seem to have taken off though a little less at the time the article was written – it was referred to as an “appliance” – meaning I think that people did some shopping by looking at advertisements before going to purchase. They did break the schools market for sales. It was a big market in terms of sales as well as opportunity to market the product. They didn’t get much into home sales but did say a big market was “graduates” which ties into to school market because users may have a preference for the model they learned on. Also, the article went on to say that because teachers often gave extra credit to typed papers more parents were buying typewriters for the home.

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