How was the typewriter invented?

Before the keyboard, there was the typewriter. And now how did these writing machines come about?

Well, they were built as early as the fourteenth century. The first patented writing machine was made in England in 1714 but never built. The first manufactured typewriter appeared in 1870 and was the invention of Malling Hansen. It was called the Hansen Writing Ball and used part of a sphere studded with keys mounted over a piece of paper on the body of the machine.

Christopher L. Sholes and Carlos Glidden developed a machine with a keyboard, a platen made of vulcanized rubber, and a wooden space bar. E. Remington & Sons purchased the rights and manufacture began in 1874. To avoid jamming typebars with adjacent and commonly used pairs of letters, Sholes and Glidden arranged the keyboard with these first six letters on the left of the top row and other letters distributed based on frequency of use. Their “QWERTY” system is still the standard for arranging letters.

The first Remington typewriter only printed capital letters, but a model made in 1878 used a shift key to raise and lower typebars. The shift key and double-character typeface produced twice as many characters without changing the number of typebars. By 1901, John Underwood was producing a machine that had a backspace, tab, and ribbon selector for raising and lowering the ribbon.

George Blickensderfer produced the first electric typewriter in 1902, but practical electric typewriters were not manufactured until about 1925. In 1961, International Business Machines (IBM) introduced the Selectric electric typewriter. From about 1960 to 1980, the standard typewriter industry in the United States withered away. The IBM Selectric II debuted in 1984, but IBM stopped making electric models in favor of the electronic Wheelwriter in the early 1990s. By this time personal computers were becoming more popular.

By the late 1990s, most of the manual typewriters supplied to the United States came from three firms. Olympia in Germany makes standard portables, Olivetti in Italy makes a standard office typewriter and two portable models, and the Indian firm Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company is the largest producer of manual typewriters.

Carrying cases can be made of wood, steel, or plastic. Steel is the material used for most of the parts in standard models. Typewriters use hundreds to thousands of moving parts, and cold-rolled steel is one of the most reliable materials.

The platen is a steel tube covered with a rubber sleeve. The rubber sleeves are made of a special form of rubber from the “buna-N” family. Glue is used to adhere the rubber sleeve to the platen tube.

The keys were molded of plastic in a two-shot, injection-molding process that made white characters with the surrounding key tops in other colors. From the 1970s forward, a pad printing process has been used to apply the characters in ink and coat the keys with a durable “clearcoat” finish.

Mylar (plastic) ribbons with ink on one side are used to transfer the typeface. These ribbons are contained in plastic cartridges that could be thrown away.

Miscellaneous materials are also used. These include glue, paint, chemical solvents and other fluids, zinc and chromium for plating some components, and acetic acid for building protective coatings on some parts.

Typewriters have several parts that allow them to produce typed papers; the keyboard being the most obvious. Each key is connected to a typebar that lifted a typeface to strike the paper. Each typeface has upper and lower case forms of a letter or numbers and symbols. The assemblage of typebars and typefaces is called the typebasket.

Mylar (a plastic produced in very thin ribbons and coated with ink on the platen side) typewriter ribbon uses ink to transfer images on the typeface to the paper. Its alignment parallels the platen and the paper, and ribbon guides raise the ribbon to print and then lowers it.

The platen stops the typeface but allows enough force to the paper for the image to print. The carriage is a box-like container in the upper, rear part of the typewriter that carries the platen, the lever for carriage returns and line spacing, guides to help direct and grip the paper, and the paper itself. The paper is inserted in a feed rack (paper support) in the back of the carriage, supported and curved up toward the typing surface in a paper table or paper trough, and held against the underside of the platen by two feed rollers.

An escapement (a device that allows motion in only one direction and in precise steps) controls the motion of the carriage to the left after each character was typed. A mainspring in the escapement transmits energy to move the carriage on ball bearings.

To move the paper up after a line of typing is complete, a line-spacing lever rotates the platen toward the rear of the typewriter. The lever is also the carriage-return that disengages the escapement and pushes the carriage back to the right for the new line. Knobs on the ends of the platen are turned so the paper can be removed.

Typewriters fall into five classifications. The standard typewriter was the first kind manufactured. It was too heavy (15-25 lb or 5.6-9.3 kg) to move often, so it was kept on a desk or typing table. The standard typewriter had a wider platen (a rubber-covered, steel cylinder for absorbing typing impact) in the carriage (the part that moved the paper into place) that could hold oversized forms. The portable manual typewriter was smaller in size, lighter in weight, and equipped with a carrying case for easier movement and storage. Portable typewriters were popular for home and school use.

One of the most important advances in the field of typewriters and office machines was the development of automatic controls that allow typing from remote electrical signals rather than from manual control. This technique enabled office machine manufacturers to develop an integrated system of business communication utilizing remote control typewriters and computer techniques.

With such a system, machines handling all the different office machine functions, such as the typewriter, calculating machine, and printing telegraph, together with mass data processing computers and electronic storage systems, are tied together by the use of a “common language” in the form of coded electrical signals. This coded information, coming into an office via appropriate communication channels, can be automatically recorded and printed. Component machines produced by any manufacturer can be connected to any other without the use of special code converters. Other automatic typewriter devices also have become available. A vacuum-operated system, for example, controls and operates any number of standard typewriters from a perforated roll of paper tape, much like the player piano, making possible rapid production of form letters and other papers.

Of course, electric typewriters and then computers all but fully displaced manual typewriters. One exception, the Bridgewater, New Jersey-based Royal Consumer Information Products continues to market the “Royal Epoch,” a manual typewriter manufactured in China. And the Japanese firm, Nakajima, still makes electric typewriters. But for real aficionados, nothing is the same as keeping older models working.

This post is dedicated to my father who is is typewriting away. 

Check out my related post: How do QR codes work?

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