Christopher Latham Sholes: The Seventy-sixth Inventor Of The Typewriter

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The keys kept jamming. Sholes, who had originally arranged them alphabetically, worked out the most frequent combinations of letters in English, then scattered them as widely as possible so they’d be less likely to foul each other. Thus was born the QWERTY keyboard we use today. “So it turns out,” says the typewriter historian Donald Sutherland, “that the most efficient wordprocessing, data-processing … equipment, no matter how sophisticated … and science-fictionish, is controlled from a keyboard that is a paragon of inefficiency because, sometime shortly after the Civil War, Christopher Latham Sholes had a sticky typewriter.”

Densmore, broke now but still ardent, kept up his haranguing, and Sholes, wild to be quit of it, kept making refinements. At last, in 1873, the Remington Company in Ilion, New York, then gearing down from making weapons, agreed to manufacture the machines. They sold slowly at first and made a glum showing at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. But by the 188Os things were moving: five thousand Remington typewriters were sold in 1886, twice that number two years later, and something on the order of a hundred thousand by the turn of the century.

The harried Sholes probably made about twenty thousand dollars all told. But before he died in 1890, he saw an immense, unexpected consequence of his work: the typewriter had turned out to be an engine of liberation. The demand for “lady operators” was creating the first generation of women office workers. Sholes took particular pride in that. Usually the most modest of men, toward the end of his life he thundered: “Whatever I may have felt, in the early days, of the value of the typewriter, it is obviously a blessing to mankind, and especially to womankind. I am glad I had something to do with it. I builded wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it.”