Collecting antique typewriters from the 1880s and 1890s has been a wonderful experience for me over the years. My collection is really just the tip of the iceberg though, as literally hundreds of distinct collectible typewriters were manufactured during this time. There are so many more interesting models that my search will never end. For a collector, though, this is tantalizingly good news!
I also love to restore these beautifully made typewriters. I’ve spent hundreds of hours working on a single machine, dismantling every part to remove dirt, old oil and rust. It takes a lot of patience, but the pleasures of exploring the mechanisms of a 100-year old typewriter, and the end result — a beautiful, smoothly operating artifact — is well worth it.
I started collecting typewriters in 1989, when I spotted a very dusty and intriguing item high upon a shelf in a cluttered junk shop. It turned out to be a Caligraph 2 typewriter from the early 1880s. I had been looking for some kind of fine 19th century machinery to collect that had a good range of design and was not too large to bring into my house. I wanted to collect something that was off the beaten path. I realized that my search was over; I was going to collect typewriters!
Part of the magic of these early typewriters is that they are so far away and yet so close. There is a remarkable collective experience that we all have towards typing and an incredible nostalgia for the typewriter, with an intellectual and emotional investment in it as the symbol of writing.
These early typewriters are relevant to just about everyone and create an immediate connection, as one relates to the typing machine, its keyboard and how this tool has impacted one’s life. These typewriters provoke memories from people who typed as a child or as an adult, to people who have never seen or used a typewriter but type on a computer.
The following brief history of early typewriters focuses on the remarkable typewriters from the 1880s and 1890s, when typewriters first emerged in the age of modernism and helped to change the world.
The First Typewriters: The keyboard provides an essential means to communicate and is used by more people today then ever before. Keyboards are arguably one of the most important tools in the world, a tool that represents our personal communication in this technological age.
Typewriters from the 1930s and ’40s all look pretty much the same: With four rows of straight keys, single shift and front strike visible (type-bars hit the front of the roller allowing one to see what they have just typed).
Typewriters have not always looked like this though. Just imagine if you, never having seen a typing machine, were asked to design one. How might it look? In fact, the standard big, black machines that you might be familiar with such the Underwood and Remington were the result of many years of mechanical evolution.
During these early years of discovery, ingenuity and mistakes, more than 400 different typing machines were produced to print the written word. Among them were machines with curved keyboards, double keyboards or no keyboards at all!
The first typewriter patent was issued to an English engineer, Henry Mill, in 1714. He outlined the concept of the typewriter when he registered a patent for “an artificial machine for impressing letters one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings may be engrossed in paper or parchment, so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.” However, this machine was never made.
Many experimental typewriters were built and used during the first 75 years of the 19th century but none were produced in quantity. This was about to change as the technology for mass production had arrived and the need for fast, accurate business communication was growing. What was needed was a person to bring together all of the successful elements that had been developed so far.
The Sholes & Glidden Machine: This person was Christopher Sholes, an American printer living in Milwaukee. After a shaky start with a number of experimental, prototype machines, Sholes was advised by his financial backer, Glidden, to have his typewriter produced by E. Remington & Sons. This was wise advice as the Remington factory was well equipped to mass-produce complex machines, having already set up production facilities to manufacture guns and later sewing machines. With the American Civil War over and the need for guns diminished, Remington was eager for new business opportunities and embraced the challenge.
In 1874, the Remington factory produced 1,000 Sholes & Glidden typewriters. This typewriter was a beautiful object, all black and covered with hand painted floral decorations. A cast iron foot treadle operated the carriage return. The influence of the sewing machine on its design was clear. To see what had been typed, it was necessary to lift up the carriage and look under the roller, as the type-bars struck on the underside.
The Sholes and Glidden was also the first typewriter with the “Qwerty” keyboard. The purpose of this layout was to minimize the type-bars from clashing with each other while typing, by separating the type-bars for letters that are frequently typed in sequence, for example “t” & “h” and also letters that are frequently used. Attempts were made to introduce more sensible keyboard layouts once typewriter designs had evolved but it was too late, people had already learned one way and understandably did not want to learn again.
The start was slow for the typewriter. The Sholes & Glidden was not a quick hit and sold very slowly to start and then with only moderate success. Competition did not arrive until 1881, when the Caligraph 1 appeared. However, during the following 20 years everything changed, as the industrial world realized that the typewriter was indispensable and that there was a huge market to satisfy.
The Index Typewriter: Full keyboard typewriters were very expensive; costing between $60 and $100, a large expense when a clerk’s wage was $5 a week and horse drawn carriages cost between $40 and $70. With few second-hand machines to be had, a less expensive machine was needed. Thus, the “index machine” was born. This typewriter had no keyboard. Instead, a dial or knob was turned to select the character to be printed. Typing was slow, but the cost was right at $5 to $30 per machine. The index machine was popular for small businesses and home use. Many varieties were produced. As second hand machines became available and touch-typing was discovered around 1900, the market for index typewriters disappeared quickly.
In Search of Standardization: There were many brilliant mechanical engineers, who became typewriter pioneers when they took their skills to the rapidly growing typewriter industry.
The inventors, having to avoid patent infringements and pursuing their own notion of the better typewriter, created many ingenious mechanisms to get the printed word onto paper. There was little if any apparent design progression for these first typewriters. A great variety of machines were invented, out of which the most efficient combinations of mechanisms were gradually selected. Some mechanisms, too advanced, disappeared until a later time. Each mechanism solved a particular problem but not always in the best way. There were notable successes and failures!
By 1896 many components, combinations and designs had been tried and the winner was emerging. A typewriter with the correct combination of successful components, a typing machine that would usher in the new century, conquer the world and put an end to this period of rich diversity in typewriter history. The Underwood had arrived.
Typewriters shown in this article are from the Martin Howard Collection. Howard would be pleased to answer your questions and if you have an early typewriter that you are interested in selling, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
See some amazing typewriters from the Martin Howard Collection and read about how this remarkable invention emerged into the late 19th century with a bang at www.antiquetypewriters.com. Comprised of typewriters from the very beginning of the typewriter industry (1880s-1890s), the Martin Howard Collection is one of the largest of its kind. The collection contains many rare and historically important typewriters, showing the remarkable diversity and beauty of the world’s first typing machines.