August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Charles Weller was at his post in the Western Union office in Milwaukee one day in 1867 when his friend Christopher Sholes came in. With the long, tragic face of an El Greco martyr, Sholes looked to be nothing less exalted than a poet, but in fact he was collector of customs for the city. He liked to invent things on the side, and that was why he had come to see Weller: he wanted a piece of carbon paper for an experiment. “What kind of experiment?” Weller asked, handing over the paper. Sholes wouldn’t say, but he invited Weller to come around the next day and see for himself.
When Weller went over to Sholes’s office in the Federal Building on his lunch hour, he found the inventor with an inscrutable device from which a telegraph key sprouted. Holding a sheet of paper and the carbon in the machine with his left hand, Sholes tapped the key with his right, then gave the paper to Weller, who read: W W W W W W W W W. The key had batted a single typebar upward against the paper.
Years later Weller maintained that he had been impressed immediately, though it would have taken a man of formidable imagination to see in that mild parlor trick the birth of the typewriter.
Indeed, there are those who claim the event was no such thing. No invention has a more tangled provenance. Even one of Sholes’s most faithful backers describes him as “the fifty-second man to invent the typewriter,” and Michael Adler, the waspish British authority, says, “If one … starts with Henry Mill then [Sholes] was, in fact, at least 76th and perhaps as much as 112th.”
Of Mills’s standing, at least, there is no doubt: on January 7,1714, Queen Anne granted her countryman a Royall Letters Patent to manufacture “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.” Even if Mill didn’t actually build his typewriter—and there’s no indication that he did—he was the first to describe the device.
In the mid-1700s attempts were made to hook writing machines to harpsichord keyboards; in 1808 an Italian nobleman built one for a blind countess; the American surveyor William Burt patented his in 1829; and in 1857 a Dr. Samuel Francis gave his invention the ravishing name of “Literary Piano.” In the 186Os an Alabaman named John Pratt developed a writing machine that proved no more practical than its predecessors. Pratt’s device, however, appeared in Scientific American with the editorial comment that fame and fortune awaited the man who got it right. Sholes saw an issue.
Building such a writing machine might have seemed the next logical step to Sholes, who had just received a patent for a device that serially numbered bankbook pages. Before that, he hadn’t had much time for inventing. Born on a Pennsylvania farm in 1819, Sholes apprenticed himself as a printer and, by the time his family moved to Wisconsin, he was good enough to become state printer and take over the house journal of the territorial legislature. Eventually President Polk made him postmaster of what was to become Kenosha, and despite fragile health and a strain of self-effacement in his character, he entered politics and served a couple of terms as state senator. Only when he became collector of the port of Milwaukee—a job that was something of a sinecure—did he find the leisure to tinker with things. He was forty-eight years old when he began work on the project that would consume the rest of his life.
Just a few months after he had borrowed the carbon paper from the prescient Weller, Sholes, working with two mechanically minded friends, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, completed his first typewriter. It wasn’t a portable. Built on the framework of a kitchen table, the huge machine drove type upward, pressing the paper against the ribbon. The result couldn’t be seen until the entire page was done, but the thing printed. All that remained was to market it and enjoy the bounty.
First, though, more capital was needed. Sholes remembered an acquaintance named James Densmore, who had made good money by inventing a tank car during the Pennsylvania oil boom. He wrote—that is, typed- him a letter. Densmore was interested and agreed to pay all expenses to date—six hundred dollars—and put “up future financing in return for 25 percent of the rights. Then, with everything formalized, Densmore came west to have a look at the machine.
He was horrified. It was crude, he said, and unmarketable. Make a better one. The incensed Densmore, a shaggy, red - haired, three - hundredpound giant, roared and bullied and was evidently the object of universal detestation. What he had, however, was an unwavering zealot’s belief in Sholes’s ability to make his typewriter work.
He hounded Glidden, Soule, and Sholes into producing model after model, sending each one out for testing as soon as it was finished. Weller played a part in this, pounding out the slogan of the Republicans then rallying behind Grant’s presidential campaign, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party,” and always finding something wrong. “I think the machine is now as perfect in its mechanism as I know how to make it …,” wrote Sholes in a typical, plaintive letter. “No, it’s not,” Densmore replied again and again.
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.”