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  • Natalie Taylor


June 23 is National Typewriter Day, a celebration of mechanical writing. So how did we get from writing with pen or pencil to a device that allows us to produce words in a faster and more efficient way?

The earliest known concept of a typewriter dates back to 1575, when an Italian, Francesco Rapazetto, created a machine for impressing letters into paper. He called it scrittura tattile—tactile writing. Unfortunately, we have no record of what it may have looked like, or how it functioned.

In 1714, Henry Mill, an English engineer applied for a patent for “an artificial machine…impressing letters…so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.” The patent was granted by Queen Anne, but no further record has survived. The first typewriter that appears to have worked was built by another Italian, Pellegrino Turri, in 1808 for his friend—a blind countess. There are no records of what the machine looked like, but letters written on it by the countess do remain.

Above is a fragment of one of her letters, with partial translation: “My dear friend: I wish to try the new characters…”

Though not completely based on fact, the above painting is supposedly Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, Turri’s blind typist friend. Sometimes, imagination is the best we have available.

In 1828, William Austin Burt, an inventor from Detroit, developed a clunky contraption he called a typographer. A lever pressed characters onto paper, one at a time, a process that took much longer than writing!

Inventors continued working on typewriters in the 19th century, one of them developed by a Danish pastor which he called a “writing ball.” It looked like a giant pincushion, and was purportedly given to philosopher Friedrich Nitzche as a gift by his family. He did not like it at all.

However, when his eyesight began to fail making it difficult to write, he started using the machine. Eventually he wrote over 60 manuscripts on it, including a poem; this is most likely the original verse dedicated to a typewriter:

The writing ball is a thing like me:

Made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys.

Patience and tact are required in abundance

As well as fine fingers to use us.

The first practical typewriter was manufactured in 1873, the creation of Christopher Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was mounted on a sewing machine stand and the left foot pedal caused the carriage to return. It could only write in capitals. I suppose that would be perfect for some of today’s twitters!

Thomas Edison came to see Mr. Sholes’s invention, and declared—not surprisingly—that someday it would run on electricity. In 1873, Sholes signed a contract with gunsmith manufacturer Remington, and Mark Twain was one of the first to purchase the new Remington typewriter. He became the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher.

At the start of the 20th century offices had become transformed. Bookkeepers, secretaries, and clerks were all using typewriters. These mechanical writing tools were an indispensable part of every office, just as the other inventions like telephones, and telegraphs. The telephone and typewriter, in particular, were instrumental in creating a female workforce. Legions of women joined typing pools—creating a low paying, easily trained cadre of employees. Often starting as entry-level typists, women had the opportunity to rise in the ranks to become private secretaries who could take dictation and draft letters. Though far from emancipatory, the conditions of working in an office was certainly better for women than labor in a sweat shop, or meat factory.

A typical 1900s office setting with typewriters, and a fiddle back phone on the wall.

Typewriters continued to improve, with features such as capital shift, which made it possible to use upper and lower case characters. In 1961, a small change made a huge difference in typewriters. Instead of having bars that swung up to strike a ribbon on a page, a ball rotated to position the letters. It eliminated potential jams created by the bars, allowed for greater typing speed, and made it possible to change fonts with the change of the type-ball.

A “modern” IBM typewriter from the 1960s. Much quieter and faster than previous models. In the earlier models with type-bars, the typist could not see the text as it was typed until the carriage was returned. With the new type-ball, typed text became “visible.”

Typewriters were standard fixtures in most offices until the 1980s when they began to be supplanted by computers with word processing capabilities. However, there is one feature that remains on our keyboards to this day. It is called the QWERTY, and refers to the letter layout (in English) which remains the standard for computer keyboards. I remember learning the letter layout when I first learned typing in high school. Left hand fingers on ASDF, right hand fingers on JKL…and from that position you could reach all the keys above and below, without having to look down. It was akin to a pianist memorizing the musical keyboard.

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