The man who invented the typewriter did not want to invent it; the company that first made it did not want to make it; when it got to market, hardly anyone bought it. When it finally caught on, it became boringly commonplace.
The inventor was Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, collector of customs for the port of Milwaukee, and amateur inventor His experiments began in 1867 in a machine shop as suitable for developing an intricate writing machine, noted one contemporary, "as a blacksmith's for making a watch." Sholes gave up repeatedly.
His financial backer, James Densmore, browbeat Sholes into continuing. In 1873 a workable model was presented to E. Remington & Sons, gun manufacturers. Remington's production capacities had been swollen by the Civil War, and the manufacture of sewing machines took up the postwar slack. From the standpoint of factory equipment, sewing and writing machines had much in common.
What they lacked in common, in Philo Remington's opinion, was a market. Fortunately, assisting Sholes was George Washington Newton Yost, remembered as a smooth salesman. Remington was swayed by Yost's eloquent presentation and signed a contract to manufacture 1,000 Type Writers.
"The writing machine is to the pen what the sewing machine is to the needle," the manufacturers told an uninitiated public. To reinforce the point, they mounted the device on a sewing-machine stand, complete with foot treadle for carriage return. They even decorated it like contemporary sewing machines, with flowers and pastoral scenes. "An ornament to any parlour," they boasted Sales agents--including Western Electric for a time -- tried to ornament the parlors of America. They failed consistently.
One problem was that the machine had capital letters only. Another was that the printing was done on the underside of the platen, where it could not be seen. Worst was the resemblance of its product to printed matter. "I can read writin' " complained one field salesman indignant that his boss seemed to think his letters required the attention of a compositor.
And Mark Twain, an early purchaser, was "wont to swear" because people ignored the content of his letters and asked how he got them printed A "curiosity-breeding little joker was his dismissal of the Type Writer.
But by the mid-1880s, the white-collar world became mechanized, as the blue-collar world had a generation earlier. Bell's telephone, Edison's dictating machine, in-house telegraphs and ticker tapes all established a mechanical context -- and an obligation for swift communications -- that finally supplied a rationale for writing machines. By the 1890s, about a million typewriters had been sold.
But a million extra men weren't available to operate the typewriters. So employers overthrew rules of Victorian propriety and brought in women. To the dual percussions of tongues clucking and type bars pounding, the white-collar career woman was born.
By then, typewriter competition was rampant. A common target was the Remington's nonvisible printing. Every alternative was tried to bring the writing into sight. Type bars were placed behind, in front of, alongside, or on the same level as the carriage, where they swung downward, backward, and sideways, or slid or hopped in sometimes astounding displays of mechanical acrobatics.
Many inventors thought the very use of type bars was impractical, and from 1879 onward they manufactured single-element machines printing from type wheels, cylinders, and disks. One Connecticut manufacturer created the single-element Blickensderfer Electric. That was in 1902, 59 years before IBM announced its "new" Selectric.
Remington continued with blind-writing models, saying that a good typist should not have to see the print. Since Remington was the dominant member of a secret Typewriter Trust made up of a half-dozen leading manufacturers, capitalized at $20 million, it felt secure.
But in 1895 a new kind of typewriter appeared. lts type bars, arranged in a crescent-shaped basket between keyboard and carriage, swung about 90 degrees to print in line with the typist's eye. Invented by Franz X. Wagner and marketed by one John Underwood, the "modern" typewriter had arrived.
The Underwood ran away with the market. Still, 13 years passed before Remington produced its first "visible" model and 6 more before it discontinued its "blind" model.
By 1923, more than 300 makes of typewriters had appeared, including the Royal (1906) and the ancestor of the Smith-Corona (1904). The rebuilding of millions of used machines became a major sub-industry, undermining the original manufacturers' viability. Mergers and diversification were widespread. Eventually the manufacturers' devotion to such things as computers and copiers overtook their interest in typewriters.
But the typewriter created by these pioneers has served its purposes well. And it has had unanticipated effects, too. lt changed prose styles; it created mechanized bookkeeping, paving the way for the computer, and it revised the social order. Despite all this, it has been a long time since Twain's little joker bred curiosity, its legacy has been to breed what they say familiarity often does.