History of typewriters, typing, and QWERTY keyboards - By Mary Bellis


A typewriter by definition is a small machine, either electric or manual, with type keys that produced characters one at a time on a piece of paper inserted around a roller. Typewriters have been largely replaced by personal computers and home printers.


Christopher Sholes


Christopher Sholes was an American mechanical engineer, born on February 14, 1819 in Mooresburg, Pennsylvania, and died on February 17, 1890 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He invented the first practical modern typewriter in 1866, with the financial and technical support of his business partners Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden. Five years, dozens of experiments, and two patents later, Sholes and his associates produced an improved model similar to today's typewriters.




The Sholes typewriter had a type-bar system and the universal keyboard was the machine's novelty, however, the keys jammed easily. To solve the jamming problem, another business associate, James Densmore, suggested splitting up keys for letters commonly used together to slow down typing. This became today's standard "QWERTY" keyboard.


Remington Arms Company


Christopher Sholes lacked the patience required to market a new product and decided to sell the rights to the typewriter to James Densmore. He, in turn, convinced Philo Remington (therifle manufacturer) to market the device. The first "Sholes & Glidden Typewriter" was offered for sale in 1874 but was not an instant success. A few years later, improvements made by Remington engineers gave the typewriter machine its market appeal and sales skyrocketed.


Typewriter Trivia


  • George K. Anderson of Memphis, Tennessee patented the typewriter ribbon on 9/14/1886.

  • The first electric typewriter was the Blickensderfer.

  • In 1944, IBM designs the first typewriter with proportional spacing.

  • Pellegrine Tarri made an early typewriter that worked in 1801 and invented carbon paper in 1808.

  • In 1829, William Austin Burt invents the typographer, a predecessor to the typewriter.

  • Mark Twain enjoyed and made use of new inventions, he was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher.


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An excerpt from an article written by Tony Gabriele of the Daily Press 


How would I explain my old manual typewriter to a young computer-raised security officer?


"It's an, uh, a non-electronic word processor," I might say.


"Open it up so I can inspect it," he might say.


"There's nothing to open up. You're looking at it."


"Come on, I want to see the power source."


"There is none. It operates on, well, kinetic power. You mash down the key, the little arm comes up, it hits the ribbon and the letter appears on the paper."


"Ah, a ribbon. Is it some sort of microfilm?"


"No, it's just ink, honest."


"What kind of software do you use for text editing?"


"Generally, a soft lead pencil."


"A wise guy, eh? Tell me, how does this thing make copies?"


"For that, you have to use carbon paper."


"Carbon paper? Sounds like some sort of flammable agent to me. Accompany me to that little room, please."


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An excerpt from The Lost Art of the Keyboard - by Janet Swift


The keyboard is still the predominant way we interact with a computer. Voice input, touch screens and even whole body gestural input may be on the increase but most of us still type our commands or data into the machine. So how important a skill is typing ....

the main tool of our trade?


What really amazes me, is that after years of doing it and getting by ...a lot of  computer users don't know that there is a right way to type. They have just observed the simple fact that some people seem to be able to type faster than they can and sort of assume that it must be just practice - and one day they will get to the same level of speed. Even if they do notice that more than two fingers are in use there is an implicit assumption, or is it hope, that one day the other useless fingers on both hands will get into the game. Train the first two fingers and the others will get the idea and follow...


Wait a moment - who says that there IS a proper way to type?


How do we type?


The QWERTY keyboard was invented in 1873 but it didn't come with a user manual. Obviously it didn't really matter what the keyboard layout was, there wasn't going to be an obvious best way to type. After a while a number of styles were in used but the matter seems to have been settled by a competition to see how fast each method could go. The winner was a system called "home keys" and the speed was an amazing 120 words per minute. At the time there were even public typing contests and great fun was had by all with the new technology.


The "home key" system allowed users to "touch type". The majority of typing at the time was copy typing - i.e. reading a handwritten or corrected draft text and typing a copy. The problem was that if to use a keyboard you had to look at the keys, you would glance at the source text, remember a chunk of it and then type it out while looking at the keyboard. If you could touch type then you didn't have to look at the keyboard and could simply focus on the text and type what you read. The home key system made touch typing much easier. All you have to do is start to type with your fingers positioned on the home keys - ASDF for the left hand and JKL; for the right hand.


To type any character you only move the finger closest to the key and return that finger to the home key it was resting on. In this way every key press is reduced to a fixed movement of a particular finger and you don't have to look at the keyboard. Now you know why there is usually a molded dot or dash on the F and J keys on most computer keyboards - it is there to help you position your fingers over the home keys without looking. The strange fact is that some touch screen virtual keyboard have the dot on the F and J keys even though you cannot feel them.


A skill worth learning?


....The issue at hand is to learn to type or just make do?


The keyboard is still our main interface to the computer and for many reasons we accept the challenge completely unprepared because we just don't bother to learn the mechanical skill of touch typing. Just think how much more productive you could be if you could simply think your thoughts or your code onto the keyboard as fast as you could think them.


Touch typing is clearly a skill to be valued.   Or is it?


There is a change in the way we interact with computers and it is mostly due to the use of touch screens. You simply cannot touch type on a mobile phone's virtual keyboard. When presented with such a thing your only option is to use one or at most two fingers. Given the way that the unit is held you also can't use the full keyboard style for a two finger peck. It seems that the best you can do is use two thumbs. This is perhaps the biggest change to typing since the introduction of touch typing. There are even apps and websites that will teach you how to two-thumb touch type. This is a big change because before the touch screen smartphone we only had one major text input device - the full size keyboard - now we also have the virtual keyboard to deal with.


So should you learn touch typing or thumb typing?


At the moment the answer is probably both but this is not a good answer.


For all of the musings on change there is one clear conclusion - typing is a useful and relevant skill. If you have any children to educate make sure that they learn to type. Notice that if schools do not teach everyone to touch type what better way to gain an advantage than to make sure little Johnny or Jane can. Think of it as a secret weapon. There are a number of typing tutors that gamify the task to the point where it is actually fun... then there are those who think that typing fast and accurately is fun in itself.


Finally what is good for the children is good for us. Learn to type - it's not too late. Even if you have developed an advanced hunt and peck technique you can retrain your finger muscles and make use of physical memory in a very short time. Get a copy of a typing tutor, stick a cover over the keyboard and get practising. 


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