The Difficult Birth Of The Typewriter
Its inventor didn’t believe in it. The public saw no use for it. For years nobody would buy it. And then it caught on and everyone called it inevitable.
The original Remington typewriter, prototype of all modern typewriters, made its public debut in 1874. Hardly anyone noticed. “The advent of the first writing machine was not announced in cable dispatches and newspaper headlines,” The New York Times recalled later. “It slipped into existence quietly, timidly, unobtrusively, with an indifferent world to face.” In fact, the typewriter was so completely ignored it was nearly abandoned as a failure by its promoters, who had already faced a long succession of preproduction frustrations.
Yet a few years later the machine was being widely described as preordained. One observer wrote, “There were so many advantages that this ‘innovation’ was from the first as bound to come as was the steam engine when James Watt watched the tea kettle in his mother’s kitchen.” The typewriter had had to be invented, and once invented, it had had to be a success. As one journalist put it, “The world needed it. It had always needed it, but it had never known its need.”
If the world had needed the typewriter, it had been blind to this need for centuries. From a technological standpoint, practical writing machines had been feasible as early as the fourteenth century. The Remington was preceded by at least 112 other writing machines, many of which received patents and several of which were marketed on a very limited basis.
The first such patent was issued to Henry Mill, an English engineer, in 1714, for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters … whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print … the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and publick records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not be erased or counterfeited without manifested discovery.” That was the first in a long line of patented pretypewriter designs, almost all of them by Europeans. Unfortunately no drawings or specifications for Mill’s machine survive.
In America William Burt of Detroit patented the first primitive machine, a typographer, in 1829. It had no moving carriage and no type bars; the type was mounted on a lever that was raised to permit the insertion of paper. It was slow and awkward and enjoyed extremely limited success. The next significant machine was a “mechanical chirographer,” patented by Charles Thurber, of Massachusetts, in 1843. Its type was mounted on a rotating cylindrical drum. As Scientific American described it, “the paper was secured to the drum, and was brought into the proper place under the type bar guide. The typewheel was revolved until the desired lever came over the guide. The key was then forced down with the finger, and the character was printed.” Thurber managed to produce some very neat correspondence with his chirographer, but the machine was far too slow to substitute for handwriting.
The third major mechanical-writing innovator in America was Christopher Latham Sholes, father of the Remington. This was the machine that finally succeeded on the market and established the modern idea of the typewriter. No one was more surprised by its success than its inventor. A Pennsylvanian by birth, Sholes pursued early careers as a printer, journalist, a newspaper publisher, a state senator, and a federal collector. Through all of them he remained an inveterate linkerer, stubbornly working away in the machine shop of Charles Kleinsteuber, several blocks from his Milwaukee home. There Sholes perfected two pretypewriter inventions: a machine for addressing newspapers by printing subscribers’ names in the margins and a device for the successive numbering of tickets, coupons, and the like, which he later adapted so it could number the pages of a blank book.
Sholes had just received a patent for a third invention, an improved pager, when Carlos Glidden, a fellow tinkerer at Kleinsteuber’s shop, showed him an article in an 1867 Scientific American describing “a machine by which it is assumed that a man may print his thoughts twice as fast as he can write them and with the advantage of legibility, compactness, and neatness of print [invented by a] Mr. Pratt of Alabama. He draws up his alphabet in a solid square battalion, say seventy characters in seven rows, the whole in a solid electrotype plate about five-eighths inch square. … He prints a letter by blow of a minute hammer of uniform size with all the type bodies, striking the face of the letter, with the face interposed, and a carbonized sheet also between that and the type. Each letter, as wanted, is moved into position before the hammer by compound levers actuated by keys like those of a piano.” As Glidden pointed out, Pratt’s machine wasn’t much more complicated than Sholes’s pagination device.
Sholes was intrigued. He rigged together a crude writing machine, using part of an old table, a circular piece of glass, a telegraph key, a piece of carbon paper, and a great deal of piano wire. It typed only one letter— W —and because there was no mechanism for holding the paper in place, it did even this very badly.
As unimpressive as this device must have been, it was good enough to persuade Samuel Soulé, Sholes’s collaborator on the addressing and paginating machines, and Matthias Schwalbach, one of Kleinsteuber’s machinists, to back Sholes and Glidden in improving it. By September of that year Sholes and his new partners had devised a machine that they hoped was suitable for manufacture. A patent was awarded on July 14, 1868, to Sholes, Glidden, and Soulé for a “new and useful improvement in typewriting machines.”
The inventors then turned their attention to the problem of financing production. So far expenses had been paid out of the group’s pockets, but production would require a major investment. Soulé sought backers in New York and Washington; he found none. After repeated rejections the group nearly abandoned the whole project.
Then Sholes remembered an enthusiastic old newspaper partner, James Densmore, and sent him a sample of the machine’s work. Sight unseen, Densmore joined the venture, and for six hundred dollars he purchased a quarter of the rights to the machine. Sholes, Glidden, and Soulé welcomed him into the venture as their financial backer—unaware that his original investment constituted almost all his money. Only later did they discover that they still had no significant source of funding.
Densmore’s real contribution was far more important than his capital, however. He brought to the project both a real faith that the machine would succeed and a strong personality with which to convince others. When he first saw the machine, six months after giving over his savings to it, he was shocked by its crudeness. But instead of giving up hope, he began demanding changes that would improve the machine. His resolve eventually resulted in the preparation of twenty-five to thirty models over the next four years. Each one incorporated some slight improvement over the last, culminating in the first model manufactured, in limited quantity, in 1870.
Sholes, bullied on by Densmore, was the principal inventor of these models. As he worked away at them, the other two partners piecemeal signed away their rights in the invention, selling their stock. Densmore snapped up nearly every share offered, whether he could afford it or not. Then he found a manufacturer willing to take a risk.
The end of the Civil War had left armaments makers desperate to find new products and markets. Recognizing this, Densmore approached the arms manufacturer E. Remington and Sons, of Ilion, New York—which had already diversified into sewing machines—with one of the 1872 typewriters. After a few hours of demonstration, and two weeks of expert salesmanship by Densmore’s new associate George Washington Yost, the entrepreneurs got an agreement. The Remington company would rework the typewriter design under the direction of its head mechanics, William Jenne and Jefferson Clough, and then would manufacture at least a thousand units and possibly as many as twenty-four thousand. In return, Densmore and Yost, who had already talked his way into a full partnership, agreed to pay a fixed sum for every machine and a royalty to the mechanics. Production of the “Sholes and Glidden Type Writer” began.
The agreement was a very cautious one, in which Remington took very little financial risk, claimed no rights to the invention, and promised only to manufacture a limited number of units—for a fee to be paid in advance. Grateful to have struck any deal, Densmore began looking forward to his fortune and managed for a time to convince the everdour Sholes of their bright prospects. Sholes had always been pessimistic about the machine and had repeatedly offered Densmore his “full and free permission to do as you please with all the interest I have or may acquire in it.” Even though Sholes had invested an enormous amount of time in the project, he never grew any more confident about its future. To the contrary, he simply despaired more with every setback.
He was particularly disappointed by a rejection from the Automatic Telegraph Company, which turned down his machine on the advice of a presumptuous young employee named Thomas Edison. Edison said he could build a better writing machine himself. His invention, when it came, proved inferior, but for Sholes the affair just proved once again that the typewriter would never be popular. In a letter dated June 9,1872, Sholes confessed: “We shall be in a position to provide good machines provided any person is in a position to want them after they are furnished. You may know that my apprehension is, that the thing may take for a while, and for a while there may be an active demand for them, but that like any other novelty, it will have its brief day and be thrown aside.”
Undoubtedly Densmore’s patient, faithful midwifery was as crucial to the birth of the typewriter as was the work of its actual inventor. He had scraped together the necessary capital, tirelessly spurred on the reluctant Sholes, bought out Sholes’s equally pessimistic partners, and secured a manufacturer. Now he expected to relax and wait for the Remingtons to send his typewriters to the small office in lower Manhattan where he would sell them. Densmore hoped they would even sell themselves. But no one knew who would buy them.
It never crossed the minds of Sholes and Densmore that there might be a business market for typewriters. Sholes thought his most likely customers would be clergymen and men of letters. In his rare optimistic moments he hoped his typewriters might find a home in the offices of scholarly writers and from there find a wider market among the general public.
Densmore was so convinced of the machine’s utility that he completely stopped using a pen—even for his signature. But he had no idea of the vast market awaiting the typewriter among commercial enterprises. He wrote to his brother, in 1872, that the typewriter’s greatest promise lay in “its importance to literary people.” He reasoned that literary men would value the opportunity to see their work very nearly in print; he saw as the typewriter’s main advantage not speed or convenience but its ability to produce letters that looked like those of a printing press. “There is something impersonal in printed matter that does not inhere in any manuscript,” he wrote. But that quality actually proved a great obstacle to the machine’s wide acceptance for business correspondence.
Sholes and Densmore both assumed that the future of the typewriter must rest with individual, private users. But in the 187Os it looked as if it might rest with no one. Densmore received his first shipments from Remington in 1874 and almost immediately had to send some of the machines back for adjustments. Those that did work were sent in July to dealers authorized by Densmore and Yost, where almost all of them sat neglected on the shelves. A modest number were sold, and a very few fell into the hands of powerful celebrities.
Late in 1874 Mark Twain and the popular humorist Petroleum V. Nasby were walking together by a typewriter dealership in Boston when a Remington No. 1 caught their eyes. The two men entered the store and watched a demonstration of the machine by a young woman who typed an amazing fifty-seven words per minute. Twain and Nasby begged for more demonstrations and stuffed her sample typewriting into their pockets as fast as she could produce it.
Twain purchased a machine on the spot and took it home to try out on a letter to his brother. Nasby did not purchase a machine but instead dropped his pseudonym, gave up the lecture circuit, and became a partner in the new sales team of Densmore, Yost, and Locke (for David Ross Locke, Nasby’s real name).
Twain and Nasby were unusual, to say the least. Most people who were aware at all of the typewriter were unimpressed by its neat print and its speed. As the two humorists soon discovered, the saleslady’s typing speed of fifty-seven words a minute was exceptional and not easily duplicated by an untrained typist. In fact, she had simply repeated the same phrase—“the boy stood on the burning deck”—over and over again and, as Twain put it, “economized time and labor by memorizing a formula which she knew by heart.”
Another curious aspect of the typewriter was its resemblance to the other Remington nonmilitary product, the sewing machine. It carried a price tag of $125, making it for the ordinary buyer an expensive gamble on an unproved technology that looked suspiciously like a hoax. Altogether from July to December 1874, only two hundred were sold. The first few years thereafter were much the same, seeming to confirm Sholes’s gloomy predictions.
Attempts at publicity helped little. Remington sponsored an exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, in Philadelphia, where for twenty-five cents visitors could receive a few typewritten lines, such as a short note with which to amuse friends. As a curiosity the exhibit fared well. Long lines of people waited to dictate, and everyone seemed fascinated with the dexterity of the pretty, young typist. But no typewriters were sold.
People would flood to see typewriters displayed, but no one would actually buy one. When Densmore and Yost set up typewriter sales offices in New York City, they received crowds of visitors who marveled at the neat and rapid print spewed from the operator’s fingertips. Many of them went so far as to predict that the typewriter would become a universal replacement for the pen. But in the first four years of manufacture, between 1874 and 1878, only about four thousand typewriters were sold; at the beginning of the 188Os there were still only five thousand machines in existence. Having invested all their assets in the invention, Densmore and Sholes both lived in virtual poverty, barely able to support their families and stave off creditors. Meanwhile, the Remington company itself teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
In part, the poor sales can be attributed to economic and technical problems. The recession that began in 1873 surely discouraged businessmen from adopting typewriters. But that ended late in the 187Os, and typewriters still didn’t start to sell until several years later, in the 188Os. And price can’t have been the biggest obstacle, for when Remingtons did start to win customers and also attracted cheaper competition, the top-priced Remington consistently led the market in sales.
The first Remington did have technical shortcomings. The 1878 Remington No. 2 offered both upper- and lower-case letters for the first time and was widely recognized by both its producers and its potential customers as a far superior machine to the 1874 model. Perhaps customers anticipated these improvements and waited for them. Charles E. Weller, a St. Louis court reporter who tested several models, made lists of faults with the first machines and then found the Remington No. 2 an enormous improvement, specifically citing the new shift keyboard. But technical problems also don’t account for the typewriter’s slow acceptance; the No. 2 was around for several years before sales took off.
Beyond the technical and economic hurdles the typewriter faced, it had to overcome more powerful obstacles. As hard as it is to conceive of today, Americans were deeply uncomfortable with the strange notion of “mechanical writing,” and it would take them a while to get used to it.
Nineteenth-century society depended almost entirely upon the postal system as a means of communication over any distance. In the 187Os and 188Os, letter writing still served as the major medium for information exchange between individuals. A letter might contain the only shared information between recipient and sender, and everything about a letter had enormous significance. Intricate and lengthy rules of etiquette prescribed the proper form and writing style for any written exchange. Learning and practicing these standards was a necessity for social acceptance.
As Decorum , a text on etiquette published in 1881, explained, “Letters are indices of the taste as well as of the mind of the writer. They express his thoughts and his feelings, their manner almost invariably marks the spirit and temper of their author. How important, then, that they should be conceived in kindness.” Ambitious young men often attended colleges of penmanship; women trained themselves in fashionable writing taught through etiquette texts.
The businessman enjoyed no exemption from these social expectations. The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette , of 1873, advised: “There is no branch of a man’s education, no portion of his intercourse with other men, and no quality which will stand him in good stead more frequently than the capability of writing a good letter. … In business, in his intercourse with society, in, I may say, almost every circumstance of his life, he will find his pen called into requisition.”
Obtruding a typewriter into the delicate social system of handwritten correspondence was a dangerous move. The confusion that could result is poignantly illustrated by the experience of one J. P. Johns, a Texas insurance man and banker who bought a Remington in the late 187Os and used it to write to his insurance agents. One of them wrote back:
“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 insurance man discovered, a correct handwritten business letter was a social norm not to be tampered with.
Convention prescribed that all letters be written out in neat longhand. In a commercial establishment this task often fell to a clerk or apprentice, who laboriously wrote out all correspondence and records in a neat and carefully practiced longhand script.
The first recipients of typewritten letters generally assumed that the sender had enlisted the aid of a printing press, the only machine known to be capable of producing such neat print. Far from being regarded as a compliment, a printed letter suggested either that the sender thought the receiver was incapable of deciphering handwriting or that the letter was really an advertising circular. Thus the author of typewritten mail risked offending the recipient or being ignored—suffering the same quick disposal that greets most junk mail today.
William Jenne, one of the original Remington mechanics, once attempted to make travel arrangements by typewritten letter. Planning a trip to New York with his family, Jenne wrote to a hotel with a typed request for a reservation. When he arrived, he found no record of his application. He asked a series of questions culminating in a description of the letter, and then the clerk admitted that he did remember receiving such a letter. Assuming it was a printed circular, he had thrown it away unopened.
Then there is the case of a Kentucky mountaineer, who returned his first typewritten letter with the words “You don’t need to print no letters fer me. I kin read writin.”
If these were the risks in typewriting, it is no wonder that few businessmen, whose profits depended on good relations with clients, were willing to take the chance of buying one of the new machines. For some years after the typewriter finally became familiar, Sears, Roebuck and Company continued to send handwritten letters to its farm clientele, which seemed especially likely to take offense at machinemade mail.
Compounded with the etiquette problem was the fear of forgery. In the earliest days of the typewritten letter, signatures were almost always typed; that is how Densmore, Sholes, and Twain all did it. It seems not to have occurred to anyone to do otherwise. So many jokes revolved around the theme of a forged lover’s note that a stenographic journal suggested one advantage of typed intimate correspondence: “A fellow can get a much better idea of how his letters are going to look in print when the newspapers report his trial for breach of promise.”
If social custom explains why businessmen wouldn’t correspond using the new machine, it doesn’t tell why they didn’t use it for the production and maintenance of internal business records. Convention didn’t prevent typewriters from improving general office work. Given the clear advantages of the typewriter in speed, legibility, and making copies, almost any growing enterprise could have profited from its use.
Here the fault lies with the typewriter’s innovators and salesmen, who never thought to count businesses among their potential customers. They simply didn’t go after the businessman. But their failure to do so is understandable. The rapid expansion of commercial enterprises in the postbellum boom had changed the nation by the 1880s, but the idea that salaried businessmen should control and direct this growth followed slowly behind. Although businessmen were gradually emerging as an innovative and powerful group, most Americans continued to think of them in terms of local proprietors of small businesses. The notion of the businessman as leading a large organization generally applied only to railroad magnates, captains of industry, and financial barons.
When Densmore and his sales partner Yost sought to persuade a prestigious employer with a respectable reputation to test their typewriters, they turned not to business at all but to the United States government. And Washington bureaucrats, when confronted with the new machine, pointed to the miles of red tape prescribing how documents and written records were to be maintained. There was, of course, no provision for a typewriter in any of their guidelines. The government was the first major employer to be approached with the typewriter, but it would be among the last to adopt it.
As late as 1897 The Typewriter World could still complain that “the records of State legislatures and of Congress are scrawled on paper with a pen, just as they have been since 1777, when the first Congress assembled at Baltimore.” All areas and levels of government responded slowly to the typewriter. Not until 1899, for example, did Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Frank Vanderlip order that his department’s records be kept in typewritten form.
Discouraged by their failure with government offices in Washington, Densmore and Yost despaired of selling their machines as clerical tools. E. Remington and Sons had no better idea than did Densmore and Sholes of the great utility of their product for business. An early advertising brochure lists first among prospective clients court reporters, followed by 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.”
When Remington’s sales agents wanted endorsements to advertise their product, they went to the court reporters at the top of the list rather than to the businessmen at the bottom. In fact, the first sixteen typewriters to leave the llion factory were sent to court reporters in Washington and Chicago in exchange for testimonials.
Sholes, Densmore, and the Remington company cannot fairly be blamed for failing to anticipate the business market; no one did. People thought of the typewriter as all or nothing; those who predicted success for it at all generally foresaw its making the pen entirely obsolete, and the implications of this wild notion were not dwelt on.
But the real stumbling block lay in the blindness of businessmen themselves to the new tool at hand. Not until the late 1880s could The Penman’s Art Journal observe: ‘The type writer is creating a revolution in methods of correspondence… . The revolution, if it may be called so, has come from the discovery to business men of an ability of which they were unaware until the great convenience and excellent work of the type writer forced them to it.”
The typewriter and the rise of the professional typist and the typing pool proved essential in facilitating the expansion and rationalization of business practices, but it was only one part of this transformation. The modern compartmentalized office at the close of the nineteenth century would have been unrecognizable to someone from before the Civil War.
The typical small antebellum office had a manager, usually the owner, who oversaw the labor of a handful of clerks. The clerks’ work varied greatly according to the type of business, but generally their jobs included writing letters, keeping ledgers, and making copies by hand or by letter press—an inefficient device that rolled a still-wet letter between two sheets of blotting paper to transfer an imprint onto one of them. Most clerks expected to advance to better jobs, sometimes to managerial positions or even ownership of their small firms. An office was arranged hierarchically yet informally, with everyone aware of his place on the ladder. Everyone was busy, and most companies worked well with their modest staffs performing only modest operations.
With the close of the Civil War, the great expansion of commerce began. Technological innovations, such as the long-distance railroad and telegraph, opened vast new markets and encouraged the replacement of the small, traditional establishment with what the business historian Alfred D. Chandler calls the “modern business enterprise”: a multiunit corporation employing a hierarchy of salaried managers who coordinated operations between units. Eventually the character of the late-nineteenth-century business was no longer defined by the traditional clerk’s office but by a relatively complex organization that depended on many more office employees, performing specialized tasks, such as stenography, bookkeeping, or typing.
The new complexity required more sophisticated record keeping. With greater capital at risk and many more complicated operations under the control of one firm, balance sheets and statistics took the place of the manager-owner’s mnemonic skill in setting company policy and strategy. A business that grew to encompass national markets relied on a constant flow of such information among its separate managers and their departments.
The typewriter was, of course, to become an invaluable tool for this new information processing. A mediocre typist could write faster and more legibly than a clerk. According to The Typewriter Magazine , a periodical published to popularize the Remington, a typewriter could do seventyfive words a minute, as opposed to twenty-four by a pen, and this meant that a good typist could do “three to twenty hours work in one hour.” At any rate, it was readily apparent that with carbon paper, patented in 1869, a typist could make multiple copies in no more time than it took to produce one.
As the years went by and the business boom strained the capacities of existing office organization, managers grew more willing to gamble on new laborsaving practices. Oldfashioned etiquette inevitably fell by the wayside as the typewriter began to win acceptance as an indispensable clerical tool.
When typewriter sales finally began to climb, in the 1880s, they took off. In 1881 Remington turned out a total of twelve hundred units, and typewriter sales exceeded production for the first time. By 1888 the Remington Standard Typewriter Company, now entirely independent of E. Remington and Sons and owned by the firm of Wykoff, Seamans, and Benedict, was producing fifteen hundred typewriters a month, eighteen thousand a year, and capacity was lagging far behind demand.
A sure sign of the typewriter’s bright new future was the competition it attracted. Several other makes of writing machine, chiefly the Hall, the Caligraph, the Crandall, and the Hammond, were on the market by 1885. Each looked noticeably different from the Remington, but they were all so clearly inspired by their predecessor that patent litigation followed swiftly. The combined total number of units manufactured by these companies reached fifty thousand in 1886. In 1891 The Stenographer, a professional monthly, counted no fewer than forty-seven makes of typewriters on the market. Less than twenty years later that figure reached eighty-nine.
As early as 1886, just five years after the upturn in demand began, almost every sizable office employed at least one resident typist. In less than a decade an unacceptable novelty had become a necessity. As The Penman’s Art Journal observed in 1887, “Whereas, five years ago the typewriter was still a mechanical curiosity, today its monotonous click can be heard in almost every well-regulated business establishment in the country. A great revolution is taking place, and the typewriter is at the bottom of it.”
This remarkable transformation made it easy to forget that the typewriter had almost never made it to market and had languished for years after it had. In 1890 The Philadelphia Stenographer recalled with sweeping inaccuracy: “Ten years ago, there was but one machine in the market, a somewhat clumsy piece of mechanism, tiresome to operate, doing work of indifferent merit and costing a rather extravagant sum; yet the innovation was even then welcomed and liberally patronized by businessmen.”
Even a member of the Remington board of directors offered a fairly incredible account of his first impressions of the Sholes-Glidden typewriter. In 1923, fifty years after he first saw the typewriter, Henry Harper Benedict said that upon being asked by Philo Remington for advice, he had replied: “The machine is very crude, but there is an idea there that will revolutionize business… We must on no account let it get away.”
Fortunately the typewriter did not get away, even though its haphazard inception and development might challenge our assumptions about the inevitability of any invention. It’s a good reminder of how technology can be just as quirky and unpredictable as any other human endeavor. The typewriter’s odd infancy bears a few surprising similarities to that of its modern counterpart the personal computer. In 1985 one writer proclaimed: “When we consider the introduction of word processors and microcomputers into the offices of the 1980s, we see history repeating itself. In 1887 it was predicted that the typewriter would revolutionize office work, and indeed it did.” But in the 1880s, as now, the office was already changing in ways that no one could foresee. The new technology spurred that on and was a part of it. In both cases the oracles failed to divine how the machine would fit into and reinforce and simultaneously transform existing situations. Just as the typewriter, if it caught on at all, was going to make the pen obsolete, so the computer was supposed to retire the typewriter. Neither looks likely. It just isn’t that simple.