The History of Typewriters and Why Writers Love Them

Today we discuss the evolution of the typewriter and the impact its had on writers!

Book Culture Bookstr Trivia On Writing
Typewriter on desk to set up article topic.

I think we all have the same image when we picture a typewriter. The one that goes click-click-click with a ding at the end. Well, the typewriter has come a long way to become as we know it. Today we flashback to the evolution of the typewriter and its significance to writers!

History of the Typewriter

The concept of the typewriter began as early as the 17th century. But why did it come about in the first place? The idea was to break away from handwritten formats and move towards printed texts to aid those who were hard of hearing or with low vision. However, many of the early models failed, but with a growing interest and adjustments, it became quite successful and a highly admired piece of machinery.

Evolution of the Typewriter

Typewriter on desk for decoration.
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The Writing Ball

Model of the Writing Ball.
IMAGE VIA SCIENCE MUSEUM GROUP

The Writing Ball was invented in 1870 by Rasmus Malling-Hansen, and interestingly, it does not have the standard keyboard system as we know it today. Hansen organized the keys in a circular configuration of letters, numbers, and symbols. He arranged the most used letters together, with vowels on the left and consonants on the right. This model functioned almost silently, and with enough practice, it was supposed to operate faster than writing and speaking. As nifty as it looked, it jammed frequently, and you could not see the words as you typed.

The Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer (Remington)

Model of the Sholes and Glidden.
IMAGE VIA THE HISTORY CENTER

The design for The Sholes and Glidden typewriter began in the late 1860s by Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos S. Glidden and was manufactured by the Remington Arms Company in 1874. The overall layout of this machine changed drastically into something that mimics a sewing machine. The floral designs added a feminine touch to the machinery since clerical work became a female-dominated profession at this time. This model is credited as the first to have the “QWERTY” layout we still use on keyboards and a shift key! So, texts could have upper and lowercase lettering. The arrangement forced writers to slow down and caused fewer jams, making it more successful than its predecessor. Even with significant modifications to the Remington, the layout still caused difficulty for writers to see as they typed.

The Underwood

Model of Underwood typewriter.
IMAGE VIA SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

The Underwood was purchased by John Thomas Underwood from inventor Franz Xaver Wagner in 1874. It was the first typewriter where writers could finally see the text as they typed! It was much quicker to spot an error and essentially made the process easier for writers. With over two million copies sold by the 1920s, it’s no wonder why it set the standard for typewriters to follow. With more alterations, The Underwood became much quieter, lighter to carry, and more efficient for writers.

IBM Selectric

Model of IBM Selectric.
IMAGE VIA COVINGTON INNOVATIONS

A successful electronic spinoff of the original typewriter dominated the workforce almost a century after its first creation! In 1961 Eliot Noyes created the IBM Selectic and completely redesigned the former horizontality moving cartridges. A modernized format allowed the cartridge to move vertically as a typeball moved across the paper. Writers could also change the font by switching out the typeballs, which was a very easy and simple process.

Famous Authors and Their Typewriters

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie with Remington No. 2
IMAGE VIA THE TELEGRAPH

Agatha Christie used a Remington Portable No. 2 to draft some of her whodunit novels! She suffered from a broken wrist when she began typing on the Remington. The typewriter made her feel more connected with the story and helped the writing process flow.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway typing on an Underwood
IMAGE VIA LOS ANGELES TIMES

Ernest Hemingway used typewriters until the buttons didn’t work, so he became quite the typewriter collector. He typed on the Underwood, but his favorite was the Corona. This type appeared in the early 1920s and helped him craft countless poems and short stories.

Mark Twain

Drawing of Mark Twain with typewriter.
IMAGE VIA OPEN CULTURE

Mark Twain used one of the very early versions of The Sholes and Glidden to write Tom Sawyer. It was actually the first novel drafted by a typewriter! And given its history, it must have been a lengthy process, considering he couldn’t see as he typed. 

With advanced technology, people gradually switched from the typewriter to computers and printers. But the typewriter has made a comeback in recent years! Writers like to use them for the retro aesthetic, to feel more connected to their work, and because the keyboard is pleasing to the ear. There is still a deep appreciation for the typewriter, and when you see one, you can’t help but enjoy that click-click-click noise.


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