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The History of the Typewriter and The Development of the QWERTY Keyboard

Updated: Feb 12

I've become a little bit obsessed with typewriters over the past 12 months or so. These wonderful machines have changed how I write my books, proving that, for me at least, they are not obsolete or relics of a former era but still have a place in the digital age. They might seem like dinosaurs to some, but when they first appeared, they were revolutionary.

The Birth of a Revolution

First commercial typewriter
File:Remington No. 1 typewriter, made by Remington & Songs, Ilion, NY, 1873-1878, the first Sholes & Glidden model typewriter made by Remington - Wisconsin Historical Museum - DSC02806.JPG" by Daderot is marked with CC0 1.0.

The typewriter was invented to put an end to the inefficiencies of handwritten documents and the limitations of early printing methods.

The first commercially successful typewriter, the Sholes and Glidden, was patented in 1867. This model became known as the Remington No. 1 and featured the QWERTY keyboard most of use every day.

The QWERTY keyboard

The QWERTY keyboard had to solve one particular problem: how to prevent the typewriter's mechanical arms, which carried the characters, from jamming. To address this issue, Sholes ingeniously designed a keyboard layout that slowed down typing speed, reducing the likelihood of jams. The now-familiar QWERTY layout was born, with the first six letters spelling QWERTY across the top row.

Sholes didn't base the arrangement on efficiency or alphabetical order, as is commonly believed. Instead, he strategically placed frequently paired letters apart to minimise jamming. Despite initial scepticism and alternative layouts proposed over the years, the QWERTY keyboard acquired widespread acceptance, becoming the industry standard.

From Desk to Portable

When they were first created in the second half of the 19th century, typewriters were bulky machines, firmly tethered to desks in business settings. The breakthrough for portability came with the advent of the ‘index’ or ‘index-pointer’ typewriter, pioneered by inventors like George C. Blickensderfer and E. Remington and Sons.

Alternative typewriter keyboard
File:Img 2541 Blickensderfer from 1893, picture taken in Jersey Museum, august 2006.jpg" is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 1893, Blickensderfer introduced the Blickensderfer No. 5, a compact, lightweight typewriter that featured a cylindrical type element, allowing for a more portable design. The machine's unique index system reduced the number of keys and eliminated the conventional type-bars, resulting in a remarkably compact and lightweight device. This marked a significant departure from the traditional typewriter layout, challenging the dominance of the QWERTY keyboard.

Reminton Portable on table
Remington Portable

Following suit, E. Remington and Sons introduced the Remington Portable No. 1 in 1920, leveraging innovations in engineering and design to create a typewriter that could be easily carried and featuring the QWERTY keyboard.

The portable typewriter became a symbol of freedom for writers, journalists, and business professionals, enabling them to work beyond the confines of the office. The electronic typewriter, introduced in the mid-20th century, brought a new level of speed and efficiency, further cementing the typewriter's place in offices and homes around the world. This evolution paved the way for future generations of portable writing devices, influencing the design of laptops and ultimately shaping the landscape of modern mobile computing.

The Decline and Rise of the Typewriter in the Digital Age

Of course, the onset of the computer age and its rapid evolution made typewriters less and less viable. However, while the typewriter may have become obsolete for many, a renaissance has emerged in recent years. In the same way as vinyl records have made a comeback, typewriters have become sought-after items, and not just amongst hipsters. I was reading an article written by a child author just the other day who wrote his debut novel on an electronic typewriter to avoid the distractions of the computer. Take a look on eBay and you’ll see typewriters that were being sold for £5 and £10 ten years ago are now selling for more than £50 and these are unrestored machines with plenty of faults.

It looks like there’s still life in typewriters yet.

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