A History of the Typewriter: From the Printing Press to the Mechanical Keyboard

The typewriter is one of the most important inventions in the past 500 years.

Not only do mechanical writing devices enable anyone to write down their ideas in a format that others can understand, but the humble typewriter has truly revolutionised the ways in which humans communicate with one another.

The typewriter had an impact on nearly all aspects of modern life. The world would simply not exist as it does today without the presence of this ubiquitous machine.

Let’s dive into the history of the typewriter to better appreciate how it has influenced mankind over the centuries.

Who invented the Typewriter?

One of the most interesting features of the typewriter is that it was not invented by one individual alone. On the contrary, several personalities have contributed to its design and functionality. In this way, it is similar to other inventions such as the telephone and the automobile; gradual iterations over time created this masterful machine.

The origins of the typewriter can be traced back to a device called the scrittura tattile (tactile writer). Invented in 1575 by Francesco Rampazetto, this was a crude machine designed to imprint letters onto a piece of pre-formatted paper.

This early “typewriter” was directly influenced by the printing press (invented around 1439). In other words, information could now be distributed to a wide audience. Mechanical techniques were much more efficient when compared to traditional hand-written methods. Totally dependant on the human hand, previous documents were prone to errors and took a great deal of time to reproduce.

The Role and the Importance of Gutenberg’s Movable Type Printing Press

In the 15th century, Johannes “Gensfleisch” Gutenberg brought the movable type printing press to Germany. The concept itself had existed since at least the 11th century but Gutenberg was the first one who systematically applied the technology to reproduce manuscripts cheaply and at scale. In fact, until the arrival of digital offset printing in the early 1970s, movable type remained the dominant technology in book printing.

Regardless of when movable type printing was first invented, many of the principles associated with this printing press would later be incorporated into the typewriter.

A movable-type press consists of various components that can be set in such a way as to produce legible text (or a series of symbols). Letters and symbols are be kept in specific trays and are fitted to a frame.

Ink then rolls over these letters and the frame is pressed against a sheet of paper.

The European movable press was also more durable than older wooden counterparts. All of the letters and symbols were cast from metal. They would last significantly longer before the individual pieces needed to be reproduced.

The movable press was the main reason why the famous Gutenberg Bible was so easily printed in the late 1450s. This was the first time in history when a mass-produced book was made available to the public (although very few could read at the time).

The availability of cheaply printed books and manuscripts also helped to spread knowledge and increased communications between different nations. There is no doubt that Gutenberg’s printing press played a hugely significant role in the Renaissance.

An interesting anecdote: the modern-day expressions “upper case” and lower case” are derived from this method of printing. Larger letters were kept in an upper frame while lower-case letters were stored in a lower frame. The professional printer could easily grab a letter based upon the sentence being formatted.

A Look at the First Commercial Typewriter: The Writing “Ball”

Early prototypes of the typewriter have existed since the 16th century. Still, it was until the 1870s that Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen created a commercially viable option. Known as the “Hansen Writing Ball”, this machine consisted of 52 keys arranged in a semicircular pattern.

How the keys were arranged was determined by how frequently they were used; a concept embraced by later models. Malling-Hansen viewed the ways in which the hands of a pianist moved in order to appreciate the mechanical design of the apparatus. Unsurprisingly, the device was known as the “Writing Ball” for its shape.

The Development of the QWERTY Keyboard

As with many well-known inventions, we need to clear up a common urban myth. Some believe that the familiar QWERTY layout was designed to decrease typing efficiency. It was thought that this was a way for businesses to charge more money for their services. On the contrary, the design was chosen in order to help typists and secretaries work faster.

Originally patented by Christopher Sholes in 1874, this keyboard was intended to avoid jams and reduce errors by placing rarer letters in between common letters. After numerous iterations and a great deal of experimentation, the QWERTY design finally took hold. Some minor changes took place over the years, but this configuration is still the most widely used today.

Early Standard Mechanical Typewriters in the 20th Century

Most experts believe that E. Remington & Sons developed the first commercially viable typewriter. Billed as the “Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer,” this is possibly where the name “typewriter” originally came from.

Still, it was not until around 1910 that the majority of models were standardised. These were commonly referred to as mechanical typewriters. This was due to the physical action of the keys that pressed down upon the corresponding striking heads. Several features were likewise adopted in order to make the process of typing much easier. These included:

  • A ribbon of inked fabric
  • A bell warning the writer that he or she was approaching the end of a page
  • A carriage that moved from left to right

Even in these relatively early typewriter models, it is still clear to see that the typewriter itself had already taken on the form we are all familiar with. Innovation did not stop here. The addition of several components would eventually lead to the machines that we know today.

The Evolution of the Shift and Tab Keys

The shift key was first introduced as far back as 1878. It was also referred to as a “carriage shift.” The main purpose was to move the typebar in such a way that a different piece would be placed in contact with the inked ribbon.

As a result, it was possible to type two separate letters at the same time. This was essentially intended to enhance the efficiency of existing models as well as to lessen the number of typebars. Obviously, it was very important in the event that both upper- and lower-case letters could be accessed.

The shift key also enabled numbers to be associated with symbols.

The tab key

The tab key was created as a method to quickly create tables while typing (known as “tabulation”). This would save the user a great deal of time when compared to having to constantly employ the backspace key and the space bar. This was very useful when creating tables such as those found within ledgers.

Typists also began to employ the tab key when indenting paragraphs. With the introduction of both the shift key and the tab key, the typewriter finally took on the form that we know today.

The Golden Age of Typewriters

By the 1940s and 1950s, the typewriter was ubiquitous in the office environment. Similar to other inventions of the era, adoption was super-charged during the Second World War. The War required skilled typists to quickly produce reams of important documents.

After the war, skilled typists moved from the military service into offices. Many former war personnel soon filled secretarial roles to meet the demand for qualified typists in the States and Europe.

As a result of this burgeoning marketplace, several major companies began to market mechanical typewriters of all shapes and sizes. Some common names – soon-to-be household names – included Imperial, Sharp, Underwood, Smith-Corona and (a very young) Xerox.

Designs became more streamlined and the rather bulky configurations associated with the first half of the 20th century soon gave way to composite materials such as Bakelite and, eventually, plastic.

Ergonomics were also improved and secretaries were soon hired based upon the number of words that they were able to type in one minute. These postwar typewriters were quiet, reliable and they jammed much less frequently than their pre-war equivalents.

For the first time, typewriters were considered to be “trendy” items. This fascination with writing devices would continue to pick up pace continuing with advent of the personal computer.

The Rise of the Electric Typewriter

It is interesting to note that Thomas Edison was experimenting with electric typewriters are far back as 1870. However, these would not become economically viable until 1910.

The first widespread electric typewriter model was known as the “teletypewriter” and it was used to enhance telegraphic communications between New York and Boston.

Lesser-known companies, such as Delco and Electromatic, were producing electric models during the 1930s.

Enter IBM

In 1935, a fledgling company called IBM created the electric Typewriter Model 01. Many of these models incorporated “typeballs” as opposed to traditional mechanics; ushering in an era of shorter production times.

Computers and Computer Keyboards

The first personal computers began entering the market when affordable and reliable video display terminals were developed (i.e. the user could see the input on the screen).

The first units were designed around teletype machines but, unfortunately, the associated electro-mechanical steps were rather inefficient. This all changed with the advent of VDT (Video Display Technology). Electrical impulses could be transmitted directly from the keys to the processor of the computer. In turn, these would be translated into a digital format and highlighted on the screen.

The first computer keyboards were quite similar to their mechanical counterparts in order to create a familiar experience for typists. However, increasing computing capacity and a greater number of functions required additional keys. These began with “modifier keys” such as Control, Alt and Command.

As computer technology advanced at a furious pace, function keys began to come into existence. These were designed to provide quick shortcuts to common settings such as volume, screen lighting and printing requirements.

As you might imagine, the electrification and digitization of the typewriter – what we now refer to as keyboards – has dramatically increased typing speeds.

The most practical development is the total redundancy of using white paint to cover up typing mistakes.

Errors are now corrected by tapping the backspace button. This one button has changed the nature not just of typing but the very process of writing itself.

The Revival of the Mechanical Keyboard

Interestingly, here has been a resurgence in the use of mechanical typewriters during the past decade. With so many advancements associated with their electrical counterparts, why is this so?

First and foremost, there is a very real physical quality to a mechanical device. It provides a physical connection between the typist and the content that is being produced. This means a more personal connection to the media in production, which many writers value.

Mechanical keyboards are also efficient for high-volume typists. They offer a variable amount of tactile feedback. Boards can even be chosen based on how difficult certain keys are to press; a customisation that some writers appreciate.

Conclusion: A History of Typing is a History of Writing

From the Gutenberg Bible to 21st century typing requirements, life simply would not be the same without the typewriter.

Typewriter history is as interesting as it is completely relevant to our modern lives; a keyboard is likely sitting in front of you right now.

Although technology will continue to progress, the familiar, now redundant QWERTY layout is not likely to change any time soon.