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First Practical Typewriter

Sholes & Glidden typewriter developed by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and marketed c. 1874.
(Museum object #1964.31)

Christopher Latham Sholes, along with other inventors, toiled in a small machine shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for nearly seven years before his model for the world's first practical typewriter was introduced for mass production in 1874. After years of tinkering to improve the original 1867 design, James Densmore, an old colleague of Sholes, invested the capital to bring his machine to market and persuade manufacturers E. Remington & Sons of Ilion, New York to produce it. With a few more improvements the Remingtons succeeded in building the model featured here, which Sholes's son Fred donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1915.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1819, Sholes completed a newspaper apprenticeship there before moving to Green Bay, Wisconsin at about eighteen years of age to work for his brothers, publishers of the Wisconsin Democrat. Within a year his brothers promoted Sholes to edit the Madison Enquirer and Christopher soon moved again in 1840 to establish the Southport (later Kenosha) Telegraph, which, with various partners and brief interruptions, he published for the next seventeen years. In addition to publishing, Sholes played a key role in early Wisconsin politics, helping to organize the Free Soil and Republican parties in Wisconsin and serving several terms in the state senate and assembly. Perhaps his most memorable legislative accomplishment may have been leading the successful campaign to outlaw the death penalty in Wisconsin in 1853.

In 1867, while perfecting a page numbering device in Charles F. Kleinsteuber's machine shop in Milwaukee, Sholes met Carlos Glidden who encouraged him to develop a mechanical writing machine. A few months later an article on a "Type Writing Machine" in Scientific American inspired Sholes to pursue this suggestion and, with the aid of machinist Matthias Schwalbach and fellow inventor Samuel Soule, produced a functioning machine by the fall of that year. In a test race between Sholes on the typewriter and the superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph office writing by hand, Sholes easily beat his opponent in finishing the sentence, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party."

As with any invention, however, the men faced many challenges to bring their working model to large scale production and distribution. The Milwaukee group lacked both the financing and manufacturing capabilities to bring their invention successfully to market. To generate interest, they immediately launched a letter writing campaign to prospective financiers, all composed on the typewriting machine itself. One such letter went to Sholes's former newspaper associate Densmore in Pennsylvania who immediately bought a quarter interest in the machine, sight unseen.

When Densmore personally saw the working model in Wisconsin the next year he was very disappointed in its efficiency and, while a patent had been secured for the device, insisted that the inventors continue to perfect the machine. Over the next several years, Sholes and his colleagues made some thirty odd improvements to different models of their typewriter, including implementing the "QWERTY" system of letter arrangement (so called for the top left row of letters), intended to physically separate commonly used letters within the mechanics to avoid jammed keys, a prevalent problem on an alphabetically arranged keyboard. Other logistical drawbacks, like the fact that the typed letters were only visible on the underside of the paper or that the machine typed only in capital letters, remained bothersome realities on models like this one.

While Densmore managed to fund the manufacture of typewriters on a small scale in Milwaukee through 1872, each was handmade and far too labor intensive to be profitable. By 1873, Sholes and his fellow inventors had sold most of their shares in the typewriter to Densmore to allow him to pursue further financing. On the advice of a business partner, Densmore finally pitched the machine to E. Remington & Sons, a company already established as a producer of firearms and sewing machines. Remington reached an agreement with Densmore and continued to improve the machine, shipping the first model of the Sholes & Glidden typewriter to major cities by July 1874.

The first Sholes & Glidden typewriter model produced by Remington was mounted to a sewing machine table and featured a similar foot treadle to operate the carriage return. Although the treadle proved impractical and a modified machine with a hand pull carriage return soon replaced it, other crossovers such as floral decoration and some familiarly shaped parts remained true to the design of contemporary Remington sewing machines. Such feminine appeals, intended or not, were perhaps prophetic, as the end of the Victorian era saw a notable rise in the employ of women as secretaries in favor of the traditional male clerk. As remarked upon by Alan C. Reily on June 6, 1924 during his broadcast from the Marquette University (Milwaukee) radio station, "A strong prejudice existed 60 or 70 years ago against the employment of women in business. Then the typewriter came, soon to be followed by the girl typist, who blazed the way for other women to enter every department of business life."

The 1874 introduction of the new type writing machine did go largely unnoticed. In 1878 Remington produced a second typewriter version, replacing this model. But sales had only reached 5,000 machines by 1886. Sholes died in 1890 before he could see substantial success of his machine. Despite the unquestionable impact his apparatus had on communications, Sholes was depressed by what he perceived to be largely a failure. As written by Frederic Heath,

Shortly before Mr. Sholes's death a daughter-in-law remarked to him what a wonderful thing he had done for the world, and this was his pathetic and oft-quoted reply, "I don't know about the world, but I do feel that I have done something for the women who have always had to work so hard. It will enable them more easily to earn a living."

While he may not have lived to see it, only ten years later in 1900, up to 100,000 models of his fantastical invention were being sold a year.

[Sources: Hoke, Donald R. Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Heath, Frederic "The Typewriter in Wisconsin," Wisconsin Magazine of History, March 1944: 263-275; "James Densmore's Account: A Letter From the Early Years of the Typewriter" with notes by Hugh L. Whitehouse, May 23, 2003 from New England Historic Genealogical Society website online at http://www.newenglandancestors.org/. Further history on the Sholes-Glidden typewriter can be found online at www.typewritermuseum.org.]

SFR/ALH


Posted on March 22, 2007

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  • Business, Technology, & Labor
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