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The Key to Sholes’ Typewriter

Dec. 23, 2009
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Why Christopher Latham Sholes and his typewriter aren’t as well known as Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone and Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press is curious. Whereas stories of the latter can be found in history books, Sholes and his major contribution to humankind are notably absent. Like many inventions, pinpointing the actual inception of the typewriter is tough because the idea came into being gradually, charged with false starts, redundancies and parallel moments of innovation as similar ideas occurred to inventors at various times and in various places. As a result, its origin is inevitably shrouded in myth and inaccuracies of all sorts.

Though the name may be obscure to most, Christopher Latham Sholes, at various times a newspaperman, politician, customs collector and an abolitionist, is generally credited with the invention of the first commercially successful typewriter. According to Darren Wershler-Henry, author of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, by the time Sholes became interested in the project of creating a writing machine, the idea had been around for more than 150 years, and Sholes’ concept owed much to its precursors.

In 1867, Sholes and frequent collaborator Carlos Glidden began work on the typewriter in C.F. Kleinsteuber’s machine shop, a nexus for local inventors, in downtown Milwaukee. The first model the group produced consisted of a single type bar connected to a telegraph key. When the key was pressed, the type bar swung up to hit a carbon-paper sandwich supported by a thin glass disk. By fall, they had a crude prototype retrofitted from a kitchen table. Sholes, Glidden and another partner, Samuel W. Soulé, filed a patent application on Oct. 11, 1867 for the telegraph-key prototype.

The early stages of development strained the financial resources of the men and they took on a financial investor named James Densmore in March 1868. The inventors improved their original concept, and developed between 25-30 separate prototypes, including one that, instead of having the keys in alphabetical order, positioned frequently used combinations of keys far apart so the levers in the type basket wouldn’t jam. Sholes called on Milwaukee newspapermen from his days as editor of the Sentinel and the MilwaukeeNews to test each new model as it was finished, asking them to point out its defects and make suggestions. By 1872 the inventors had developed a model that incorporated QWERTY—those are the first six letters at the upper left-hand side of the keyboard—which became the prototype of all modern standard typewriters, although it lacked a shift and a front stroke.

Sholes eventually sold his interest in the original machine to Densmore and another investor named George Washington Newton Yst, who finally secured the sale of the typewriter in March 1873 to E. Remington & Sons (then famous as a manufacturer of guns and sewing machines) to commercialize the machine as the Sholes and Glidden typewriter. By 1876, it had been renamed the No. I Remington. According to Arthur Foulke, author of Mr. Typewriter, Christopher Sholes later disowned the machine and refused to use it, or even recommend it, but his indelible mark on the world was already written.


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