Handsome, noisy and unhackable: How typewriters changed our world

Handsome, noisy and unhackable: How typewriters changed our world

TYPE: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (Image: Alamy Stock Photo)THIS Thursday, February 14, is best-known for the annual celebra

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typewriter

TYPE: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (Image: Alamy Stock Photo)

THIS Thursday, February 14, is best-known for the annual celebration of love. But it also marks the bi-centenary of the birth of a very important man: Christopher Latham Sholes. He might not be a household name but he should be. Strictly speaking Sholes, who was born in Pennsylvania in the USA in 1819, did not invent the typewriter, but he did patent and develop the first commercially produced typing machine and gave us the QWERTYUIOP keyboard, which we still use today.

Sholes’s invention ushered in a revolution in the printed word and a golden age of newspaper journalism. We all know the image of the hard-bitten reporter punching the keys, cigarette in mouth, desperate to meet his/her deadline.

His Girl Friday (1940), Citizen Kane (1941) and Front Page Woman (1935) are just three Hollywood classics in which typewriters play a leading, if uncredited role.

The first literary work written on a typewriter is thought to be Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi of 1883. The US humorist purchased one in 1874 having seen one displayed in a shop window.

The salesman told him it could achieve a speed of 57 words per minute and Twain was disbelieving. Patrick Robertson in The New Shell Book Of Firsts takes up the story: “A ‘lady typewriter’ was summoned and began to operate the machine while Twain and [his friend] Nasby stood by with watches in their hands. At the end of a minute she had written exactly 57 words.”

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Typewriter fan Tom Hanks (Image: Gravitas Ventures)

It was only when they returned to their hotel that they realised the “lady typewriter” had simply typed the same sentence over and over again.

“If Twain felt he had been duped, it was too late to alter the fact that he had already become the first author to possess a typewriter,” notes Robertson.

A one-off made in 1808 for a blind Italian countess is thought to have been the first usable typewriter.

A Danish contraption called a Writing Ball, made of brass and steel and weighing 165lb appeared in 1870 and went on sale in London in 1872 for £100 – about £10,700 in today’s money – the same year that Sholes’s first machine appeared, immediately superseding it.

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Antique typewriter (Image: Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley)

Originally, the keys were arranged in alphabetical order. But Sholes and his backer James Densmore decided on an arrangement based on the order of type in a printer’s case which would avoid the keys of the most popular letters jamming at speed. The universal QWERTYUIOP keyboard, still going strong after nearly 150 years, was born.

Despite Sholes and Glidden Type-Writers signing a deal with arms manufacturers Remington for mass production, it took a while to become a commercial success. The problem was the fact that the typescript was prone to fade.

Writes Robertson: “The breakthrough came in 1885 with the introduction of permanent inks which was soon to have the effect (coupled with other improvements) of making the typewriter an essential item of office equipment, rather than a novelty or status symbol.”

From that point the typewriter transformed the labour market – and made a big impact by increasing female employment. 

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S novelist, short-story writer and war correspondent Ernest Hemingway (Image: Kurt Hutton/Getty Images)

In Britain the first two known female office typists were employed by the Inland Revenue in 1887 and a stereotype was born.

“The typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers,” wrote John Harrison, in his 1888 Manual Of The Typewriter.

“They seem to be made for typewriting. The typewriting involves no hard labour and no more skill than playing the piano.”

In fact, typing at speed involved lots of skill. Birdie Reeve Kay, “The World’s Fastest Typist”, was capable of more than 200 words a minute and appeared with her trusty machine in vaudeville performances. By 1911, 125,000 women were working in offices, many as typists. Big organisations had typing pools, with women separated from men.

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George Orwell typed 1984 from his sickbed (Image: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

For journalists too, the typewriter became an indispensable accessory and in literature others followed.

Ernest Hemingway liked to write standing up and kept his Royal Quiet Deluxe on a bookshelf.

“Queen of crime” Agatha Christie, felt using a typewriter instead of a Dictaphone improved her work, saying: “There is no doubt that the effort involved in typing or writing does help me keeping to the point”.

James Bond creator Ian Fleming had a gold-plated typewriter, thought to be the most expensive in the world, while George Orwell, dying of tuberculosis, typed 1984 from his sickbed.

The typewriter held sway until the late 20th century, when word processors and computers started to take over.

They have made writing easier but don’t have that old black-and-red ink magic.

One misses the wonderful “click-clack” sound the keys made and the sharp ring of the right margin bell. Typewriters give writing an industrial feel.

Safety ranks high among their other advantages, says thriller writer and Daily Express columnist Frederick Forsyth: “I have never had an accident where I have pressed a button and accidentally sent seven chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again. And have you ever tried to hack into my typewriter? It is very secure.”

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British Crime Author Agatha Christie (Image: Popperfoto/Getty Images)

I still have my 1980s’ East German model on which I would type out the football results every Saturday tea-time on the tele-printer on Grandstand. The country which manufactured it may no longer exist but “Erika” herself is going strong.

And while the QWERTY layout has critics in the digital era – it was, after all, designed for an earlier technology – it has proved highly resilient.

Some were writing epitaphs for the typewriter a few years back, and in 2012 it seemed like the end of the ribbon as the last machine made in Britain left the factory. But a vogue for “slow writing” and analogue, pre-digital technology has seen demand for old models rise.

UK website CharlieFoxtrotVintage deals in restored classic typewriters, with machines selling for as much as £335.

vintage typewriter

Vintage model (Image: Getty Images/EyeEm
)

They also have celebrity fans, most notably actor Tom Hanks, who owns more than 300 and in 2017 published his first collection of typewriter-inspired stories titled Uncommon Type.

“An email will be read, you’ll look at it on your phone, but nobody throws away a typewritten letter,” he said, describing typewriters as “beautiful, perfect, works of art” and “tools for your imagination”.

As more of us revert to type, one could say the good old-fashioned typewriter has never been so trendy.

Christopher Latham Sholes would be very proud.

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