The Revolutionary Typewriter was Once Considered a Failure

by Karoly Reyes, age 16

The original model of the typewriter was finished in 1867. Christopher Latham Sholes and other inventors developed the typewriter in a small machine shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After a few years of improvements, the world’s first practical typewriter was introduced in 1874.

Knowing the Milwaukee group lacked both the financing and manufacturing capabilities to bring the machine to market, they began to generate interest. They did this by writing letters to possible financers. The letters were all composed on the typewriter.

Financers were needed support the group. The financers would own part of the product and had power to suggest improvements. They would profit from the manufacture of the machines.

One of these letters got to James Densmore, an old colleague of Sholes. He was interested in the typewriters without even seeing it. He didn’t hesitate to invest.

Densmore got to see the machine a year later and he was very disappointed in its efficiency. He insisted that the inventors continue to work on the machine.

During the next several years, Sholes and his colleagues made thirty improvements. These improvements included adding the “QWERTY” system. This is the system of how the letters were arranged on the typewriter. It’s called the QWERTY system because of the top left row of the keyboard. They also separated the most commonly used letters so they wouldn’t get jammed.

Densmore and Sholes realized by 1873 that the typewriter was far too labor intensive to be profitable, since each typewriter was handmade. Sholes and the other inventors had already sold most of their shares in the typewriter business to Densmore. These shares allowed him to continue operating, but they advised Densmore to find a business partner.

Densmore showed the machine to E. Remington & Sons. The company was already established as a producer of firearms and sewing machines. Remington and Densmore reached an agreement and continued to improve the typewriter.

They shipped the first model of the Sholes and Glidden typewriter to major cities by July 1874.

The first model produced by Remington was mounted to a sewing machine table. It had a foot treadle similar to the sewing machines to operate the carriage return. A carriage return is used to reset the typewriter’s position after typing a line. It caused the assembly holding the paper to return to the left side of the paper so it could begin a new line. The foot treadle was later found impractical and it was replaced with a hand pull. Other things such as floral decoration and feminine shaped parts stayed true to the design.

These feminine appearances are perhaps prophetic, since this opened doors to many women to have jobs as secretaries.

The 1874 introduction was not as successful as expected. The typewriting machine went largely unnoticed. Remington produced another version of the typewriter in 1878 but sales only reached 5,000 sold machines by 1886.

Sholes died in 1890. Although these machines made a big difference in communication, he was very depressed by what he saw as a big failure because of poor sales.

Only ten years later in 1900, up to 100,000 typewriters were being sold a year. This invention was certainly not a failure and it changed many things.

[Source: Wisconsin Historical Society]