Member preview

A Typewriter Is a Linotype’s Kissing Cousin

The development of the first successful typewriter paralleled and predated the hot-metal typesetting machine

Until the 1880s, nearly every word that appeared on paper was the result of hard, manual effort. Every letter, bill, and other unique bit of correspondence was handwritten. Every piece of printed material, whether a poster or a set of encyclopedias, was hand set, with a typesetter picking out individual characters of metal or wood type and plopping them down one after another.

Gutenberg’s invention of Roman-alphabet movable type, around 1450, accelerated the duplication of the written word, but the time to set up type for printing improved only gradually across four centuries. The overhead in creating a printed item was far too high to use for small quantities of anything, much less one-off correspondence. (Typesetters may have composed letters for fun in their spare time, but not for commerce or efficiency.)

In the previous part in this series, I described how, in the mid-1880s, the Linotype hot-metal typesetting system sped up the last lagging part of printing. Instead of hand-set type, the power of a machine with a keyboard gave mechanical advantage to compositors, who tapped away and let the Linotype slide characters into the necessary order. The machine could cast metal type all at once for each line, and then distribute the molds back to their original locations. Faster input meant more fully exploiting the power of faster presses and cheaper paper.

The Linotype appeared more than a decade after another kind of mechanical advantage began to hit the market: the typewriter, which shifted handwriting into the same fast lane.

An Amplifier for the Hand

Starting in the early 1870s, commercially available typewriters began to appear in modest quantities. “This convergence was that the technology was just good enough,” says Marcin Wichary, currently at work on a book about the history of keyboards, from typewriters to computers. Because a typewriter could accelerate the production of words so quickly, offices tolerated imperfection and hassles with early models. In 1875, an account in the Hartford Courant says an experienced typist could produce 80 to 100 words per minute (wpm), five times that of a “penman.”

The typewriter and the hot-metal composition machine have a lot of DNA in common for that same reason. Both were trying to solve the problem of matching the speed of output with the speed of business and the need to more rapidly disseminate information. (The origin of both also feature the same influential person, as I describe later.)

Technology increased the rate of economic change as normality reasserted itself after the Civil War, with the expansion and increased availability of the telegraph, country-spanning rail networks, electrical transmission networks making power more available and reliable for business use, and more. Wichary notes that this era saw “the emergence of office work: the idea that there are offices and we need paperwork and bureaucracy and all that.” But paperwork appeared faster than businesses could hire people—or cost more than they could afford to manage it. Producing words remained the big bottleneck.

The typewriter arose from the necessity to pair human labor with machine amplification. Pressing a key triggered a series of rods and levers that drove a typebar — a bar with a piece of reverse-reading type in very hard metal — to hit paper. An inked ribbon (or sometimes another inked surface) was interposed between the typebar and the paper. The first typewriters offered only uppercase letters, limiting their appeal but still showing potential. Forms of carbon paper used for “manifolding” (making multiple copies) predated typewriters by a few decades, but came into their own along with them.

Like the Linotype, the typewriter also reduced the amount of expertise required to become fully productive, while multiplying the amount of material produced. People were trained in handwriting styles, but as with compositors, most human beings can write legibly in longhand only at a certain rate — about 10 to 25 wpm, as noted above and from contemporary sources — and not everyone could master the necessary handwriting quality. Shorthand writers could speed that up, but then that shorthand had to be turned back into full words.

St. Joseph Herald (Michigan), Nov. 21, 1868.

A newspaper ad in 1868 promoting the teaching at a telegraphy school of how to work an “American Type Writer,” a piano-sized contraption, noted, “Its use in this College enables students to become expert Telegraphers without regard to their penmanship.” (A telegraph operator could transmit 25 to 40 wpm by hand—faster than most writing.) In 1878, an article in the Indianapolis Mechanical Journal, recounting having a typewriter in the office for a few weeks, stated, “With less than ten days practice, we are easily able to write fully twice as fast as with pen or pencil.” A typewriter leveled the differences by producing uniformity and allowed access to a much larger workforce.

Hold Down the Right Keys

While the Linotype and typewriter were necessary for business and seemed to be inevitable inventions, inventors had spent much of the 1800s trying to create commercial versions of both. Typewriters required fewer moving parts and less boiling lead — as in zero boiling lead — than a typesetter, and thus attracted hundreds more attempts. Like the Wright brothers’ success at making a powered aircraft, any reasonably accomplished machinist could make prototypes of typewriters, given enough time.

For three-quarters of the century, however, no typewriter models succeeded simultaneously at functioning enough of the time without repairs and being amenable to true mass production. Making a few hundred useful typewriters is remarkable but doesn’t change the world. Danish inventor Rasmus Malling-Hansen created a type-ball machine, a fascinating approach using keys in a hemisphere across the top connected to pistons that shot letters down onto a flat piece of paper. (“His typewriter could’ve been the typewriter,” says Wichary, but Malling-Hansen died too soon. He also made the first electrically assisted typewriter.) Making large quantities of machines that break frequently isn’t helpful, either, which was the case with some popular models in the 1870s.

Post–Civil War America could produce more consistent and precisely made metal parts required for these and other complicated machines as part of gradual advances in metallurgy and manufacture, rather than in a sudden breakthrough. But even with quality parts, the typewriter still needed the right impetus to move from experimental to practical part of everyday business life. That impetus came in the form of James O. Clephane.

Clephane was the kind of beta tester every hardware maker both longs for and hates. In the late 1860s, Christopher Latham Sholes and James Densmore had finished the 30th or so version of a “type-writer,” which they intended to bring to market. They thought stenographers would be one of their best and first markets, because they could take verbatim notes far faster than handwriting, so the two men sought out Clephane. He was famous as a court reporter and had become a friend to several presidents, starting in the Civil War.

The results were dispiriting. “Clephane was so unsparing in his tests that not seldom he reduced a machine to ruin,” wrote George Iles in Leading American Inventors in 1913. Clephane was also “caustic” in his critique. Sholes was ready to walk away, but, according to Iles, Densmore said to him (apparently in these words in a company history):

This candid fault-finding is just what we need. We had better have it now than after we begin manufacturing. Where Clephane points out a weak lever or rod let us make it strong. Where a spacer or an inker works stiffly, let us make it work smoothly. Then, depend upon Clephane for all the praise we deserve.

History does not record Clephane issuing that praise, and eventually Sholes and Densmore felt they’d learned enough from him. They moved on to small-scale manufacturing. Scientific American featured an article and illustration in an 1872 issue of the Sholes/Densmore project as it stood.

Glidden objected to a lack of credit.

(Sholes had started with two other partners, who left when the project stalled. Densmore rescued it with cash and time, but the issue of who invented the typewriter and what role early and late partners played led to acrimony. One of the early partners, Charles Glidden, wrote a letter in response to the Scientific American article, claiming his share of credit — and omitting the other partner. However, the typewriter is widely known as the Sholes and Glidden.)

By 1873, Sholes and Densmore had a typewriter that worked as well as they could make it. But they weren’t in a position to manufacture it to the precision required for commercial production. They sold their patents in 1874 to gun maker Remington, which knew how to make and assemble parts at scale. Sholes accepted a flat payment of $12,000, while Densmore retained a percentage of royalties and, according to Iles’ Inventors, took in $1.5 million over the course of his life.

Wichary notes that early typewriters made some recipients uncomfortable, because the only previous experience people had with neatly printed material came from typographers and a press. He says that, in the 1870s, a recipient might reply, “I can read handwriting. Don’t treat me like I’m stupid.” Others would be concerned about the expense: “Please don’t bother printing stuff for me.” However, within 10 to 15 years, the situation reversed itself, Wichary says: “If you were to get a handwritten letter from a business, with one of the cursive styles, some people would start thinking this business is not doing very well: They cannot afford a typewriter.”

Though Remington took over manufacturing, the typewriter still had a slow start. An 1890 edition of Appletons’ Annual Cyclopedia featured the statistic that Remington sold 100 units in Cincinnati in the first half of 1876. But even with a full-time factory repairman whom the company moved to that city, by December only 25 percent of the machines remained in use—a fairly bleak number.

Only hundreds of typewriters were sold each year by the late 1870s; Remington claimed it was manufacturing 1,000 a year in that period. But it and other firms persisted, and in the 1880s, the typewriter began to become common, with several companies collectively selling about 10,000 a year, accelerating to tens of thousands by the decade’s end.

This number then increased to hundreds of thousands in the 1890s. In 1905, the book Tools of Business reported U.S. companies manufactured 200,000 typewriters a year, about half of which were for export. Unlike the Linotype for a good chunk of its early decades, competition for typewriters thrived for a vast and growing audience.

While we might think of the typewriter’s current form as fixed, it took until the 1880s for that to appear: By then, popular models let a typist press a shift key to switch between upper- and lowercase, ribbons advanced as one typed, and the paper was secured against a rubber-coated metal roller, called a platen.

Yet typists still couldn’t see what they typed as they typed it! The earliest “upstrike” typewriters smacked paper beneath the roller, requiring an operation to view what one had tapped away at. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the “frontstrike” typewriter to come to the fore. (Wichary notes that in a survey from the late 1880s, typists’ first request was better alignment of typed characters to make a document appear more like something printed; “visible typing” was number two.)

A Mover of Many Levers

A footnote of sorts about the previously mentioned James O. Clephane: According to a pamphlet he wrote later in life in the third person, while he may have been left out of further testing of the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, Clephane kept seven of them and “continued to use these machines for a long time.” (Typographic historian Frank Romano reproduced this rare pamphlet in whole in his book History of the Linotype Company.)

Clephane’s interest in a good typewriter predated Sholes, and he continued to investigate and fund various ideas for improved transcription machines — none of which panned out — and methods of producing typeset-like copy from a typewriting machine. He persisted and worked with multiple inventors and paid for patents. In 1877, Clephane wound up visiting a small-scale machinery company where one Ottmar Mergenthaler worked. Over a few years and some interim machines, what would become the Linotype began to emerge. (As the Linotype developed, Clephane also helped fund and foster the Volta Graphophone Company to sell Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Tainter’s improved version of the Edison cylinder phonograph.)

The beta tester in Clephane demanded more as Mergenthaler moved from a machine capable of creating molds to one that could directly cast type. “He frequently called Mr. Mergenthaler’s attention to objectionable features, and urged him to apply a remedy,” Clephane wrote about himself. Ultimately, Mergenthaler succeeded, and Clephane was satisfied.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.