Sholes Patents a Practical Typewriter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Development of the first prototype of a letter-printing machine led to the invention of the first successful commercial typewriter. The early device, which was sold first by E. Remington & Sons, revolutionized office work by helping to increase workflow and efficiency. The typewriter also led unprecedented numbers of women into the white-collar workforce.

Summary of Event

Christopher Latham Sholes was born on a farm near Mooresburg, Pennsylvania, in Montour County. His parents, Orrin, a cabinet maker, and Catherine (Cook), moved to Danville when Sholes was seven. After finishing school, he became a printer’s apprentice. By the time he was eighteen years old, he was helping his brothers print their newspaper, the Wisconsin Democrat, in Green Bay. Six years later Sholes became the editor of Madison’s Wisconsin Enquirer. Sholes, Christopher Latham Typewriters Sholes, Christopher Latham Glidden, Carlos [kw]Sholes Patents a Practical Typewriter (June 23, 1868) [kw]Patents a Practical Typewriter, Sholes (June 23, 1868) [kw]Practical Typewriter, Sholes Patents a (June 23, 1868) [kw]Typewriter, Sholes Patents a Practical (June 23, 1868) Sholes, Christopher Latham Typewriters Sholes, Christopher Latham Glidden, Carlos [g]United States;June 23, 1868: Sholes Patents a Practical Typewriter[4200] [c]Inventions;June 23, 1868: Sholes Patents a Practical Typewriter[4200] [c]Communications;June 23, 1868: Sholes Patents a Practical Typewriter[4200] Soulé, Samuel W. Densmore, James

Sholes moved to Southport (later Kenosha) to run another newspaper, and, eventually, President James K. Polk appointed him postmaster in 1843. Sholes then decided to enter politics, serving two terms in the state legislature. By 1857 he was the editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, and, in 1863, Sholes accepted an appointment by President Abraham Lincoln to become the port collector of the city. This position was fortuitous for Sholes because it allowed him ample time to tinker with inventions in a machine shop on West State Street. He and his partner, Samuel W. Soulé Soulé, Samuel W. , a civil engineer and draftsman, were granted a patent for a page numbering machine. Another partner, Carlos Glidden, after seeing a demonstration of the machine, suggested that Sholes create a machine that prints letters.

Sholes’s next inspiration came from a Scientific American Scientific American article of July 6, 1876, describing an early version of the typewriter by American inventor John Pratt. A few months later, Sholes, having worked on a primitive typing machine, asked his friend, Charles E. Weller of Western Union Telegraph, to stop by his office in the federal office building. Weller visited Sholes during his lunch break, and Sholes showed him his new invention. The device, which originally looked like a telegraph machine, typed four successive “w’s” on a piece of carbon paper upon Sholes hitting a lever. Each letter of the alphabet, Alphabet;and typewriters[Typewriters] Sholes told Weller, could be placed on a separate hammer key. Sholes, Soulé, and Glidden soon began work on the prototype.

The prototype was built on a large, cumbersome, bulky, and heavy frame. The type bars struck upward against the platen (or typewriter/printer roller) and prevented the person typing from seeing the typed page until it was nearly complete; this early model was often referred to as a “blind typewriter.” Sholes soon encountered another problem. He had arranged the letters alphabetically on the keyboard, but the type bars kept jamming as the typist increased speed and proficiency. He accidentally discovered that spreading the letters out in as many common diagraphs (for example, “ed,” “er,” “th,” and “tr”) as possible on the keyboard greatly reduced the jamming, especially when the first six keys—QWERTY—were placed in the third row. (“QWERTY” keyboards remain the standard on computers into the twenty-first century.) Also, Sholes’s early typewriter did not have a key for the number 1; instead, the typist used the letter “l.” In addition, the early model typed only in upper case letters because there was no shift key. There were other problems: The hand-inked ribbon did not always produce clean, clear type, and the strings used on the machine often broke. The collaborators had to refine the typewriter over the next few years, producing two other models.

Sholes eventually typed a letter and sent it to James Densmore Densmore, James , a promoter from Meadville, Pennsylvania, who made his money investing in oil tankers for railroad cars. At the time, Densmore was working as an attorney for the Corry Machine Company. He was so impressed by the invention that he agreed to pay Sholes and his partners their $600.00 in expenses. He also agreed to help them with future financing. Densmore secured two patents for Sholes, Glidden, and Soulé Soulé, Samuel W. on June 23, 1868.

Despite setbacks in selling the early models, Densmore believed in the typewriter and its future prospects. Sholes sold off his patent rights to Densmore for $12,000 because he had ten children, five boys and five girls, to support. Finally, Densmore Densmore, James found success with E. Remington Remington typewriters & Sons of Ilion, New York. Remington made its fortune during the Civil War producing munitions, but it later manufactured sewing machines. Remington began producing the typewriter for a commercial market on March 1, 1873. One year later, it produced a perfected model with a shift key for lower case letters and with a carriage that enabled the printed page to be viewed in its entirety while typing; the carriage could also be returned by depressing a foot pedal. The market was slow in the beginning—the company, by that time called Remington Arms, sold only 5,000 typewriters in 1886, but by 1900, sales skyrocketed to 100,000.

Significance

The typewriter found its way into offices throughout the country, revolutionizing office workflow and efficiency in record keeping and leading women into white-collar jobs in business and other institutions. The Young Men’s Christian Association Young Men’s Christian Association[Young Mens Christian Association] (YMCA) in New York City soon offered typing courses for women, and, by 1888, the number of women employed as typists grew to sixty thousand. Mark Twain Twain, Mark [p]Twain, Mark;and typewriters[Typewriters] became the first writer to submit a typewritten manuscript, for Life on the Mississippi (1883), to the work’s publishers.

Sholes eventually received additional payments from Remington Remington typewriters for his typewriter, but his grave at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee remained unmarked until 1919. The National Shorthand Reporter’s Association arranged for a marker to commemorate his invention on the centennial of his birth.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bliven, Bruce. The Wonderful Writing Machine. New York: Random House, 1954. Traces the history of the typewriter from early models in 1820 to models of 1950, and addresses how the invention revolutionized the American business world, especially for working women during the late nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Current, Richard N. The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1954. Current examined papers from the Densmore family to trace the development of the typewriter. The book includes an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foulke, Arthur Toye. Mr. Typewriter: A Biography of Christopher Latham Sholes. Boston: Christopher, 1961. An account of Sholes’s personal life, his career, and inventions. This work contains a chronology of developments for the writing machine, Sholes’s family tree, and photographs of various typewriter models.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McMann, Dennis. “Milwaukee Man’s Invention was the First Draft of the Modern Typewriter.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 5 (April, 1998). The author focuses on how the typewriter created career paths for women during the late nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rehr, Daryl. Antique Typewriters and Office Collectibles. Paducah, Ky.: Collector Books, 1997. A guide to the history of typewriters, written as an introduction to those interested not only in collecting the early devices but also in their history. Includes discussion of Sholes, his co-inventors, and the Remington company. Well-illustrated, with an index that is selectively annotated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roby, Henry W. Henry W. Roby’s Story of the Invention of the Typewriter. Edited by Milo M. Quaiffe. Menasha, Wis.: George Banta, 1925. Roby, a contemporary court reporter and stenographer who became an acquaintance of Sholes, provides a narrative about Sholes and his invention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romeno, Frank J. Machine Writing and Typesetting: The Story of Sholes and Mergenthaler and the Invention of the Typewriter and the Linotype. Salem, N.H.: GAMA, 1986. Addresses the development of mechanical approaches to writing and typesetting. The author explains the roles that both inventions played in communication. Written to celebrate the centennial of the Linotype.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snow, Richard F. “American Characters: Christopher Latham Sholes.” American Heritage 33, no. 5 (August-September, 1982): 78-79. A brief article that provides a good overview of Sholes’s attempts to develop a workable model of the typewriter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weller, Charles E. The Early History of the Typewriter. LaForte, Ind.: Chase and Shepherd, 1919. A memoir about Sholes and his development of the first practical typewriter.

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