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A Machine for Writing: A Brief History of the Typewriter photo

The story of the typewriter begins in the early nineteenth century with an Italian man, the devoted friend of a young countess who had recently gone blind, inventing a machine so she could write letters. Or it begins in the mid-nineteenth century with a Danish pastor who invented a writing ball that looked like an oversized metal pincushion. Or perhaps it begins a century before either of those, in England, when an engineer patented “an artificial machine” for “transcribing letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing,” that he potentially built, but likely just imagined.

In the 150 years before the typewriter reached mass production and public consciousness, there were a wealth of origin stories and nearly a hundred inventors: a medical doctor in New York; the head of an institution for the blind in England; a bicycle inventor in Germany; a priest in Brazil. Its many origin stories is representative of its history as a whole: unclear, messy, up for debate.

Many, if not most, of the early inventors were working on a tool for the blind. Their inventions were split between developing a machine on which the blind could create clear text to correspond with the sighted—without concerns about uniformity of script or whether the quill had the proper amount of ink—and developing a machine that would emboss paper so the blind could read their own writing. Some tried to resolve this issue by making each key activate two arms or plungers, striking or perforating separate sheets of paper, but all of these were too complex to be wholly successful.

Many early machines had keyboards laid out alphabetically, some mimicked the piano or harpsichord's design, one wrote in syllables instead of letters. They were often large, awkward, and very slow. An early French writing machine was advertised as “almost as fast as a pen,” and Scientific American called an early American writing machine “perfectly efficient except as to the element of time.”

* * *

I began collecting typewriters by accident. It started in the early 2000s, when I co-ran a small nonprofit poetry press in Olympia, Washington with my childhood friend Cole. Both resistant to the oncoming push toward digital, we became dedicated to physical objects and print media and, in this, insisted that the interiors of all our publications be typed on a typewriter. Maybe it was the fact that we were young enough to have never used typewriters for school work but old enough that they had been around our houses—machines we viewed as toys. Maybe it was an all-too-common reverence for the Beats. Or maybe it was that photo of Bob Dylan typing away at a little table, his legs crossed. Or the one of Anaïs Nin at her typewriter, staring off, dreaming. The reasons were of little importance to us—our adoration didn't need an origin story.

Once, when Cole was staying in our rural hometown, without a typewriter, I brought one up on the bus and carried it along a bike trail for miles, just so we could put out an issue of our monthly free poetry zine. It was only then, arriving at the trashed flop house he was staying at, behind a pallet factory deep in the country, my arms rubbery and body caked in sweat, that I realized our romanticism might be foolish.

The typewriter we most often used for the press wasn't a beautiful old manual, but a faded electric. It was by no means handsome and its motor whined like a weed eater, but it was reliable. There was poetry there, and together we saw it. The machine bound us. Childhood friends who were adults now with a nonprofit press, paperwork and everything, living miles below the poverty line, but getting words out into the world. I remember opening the typewriter's case on a milk crate flipped on its side—our work table for the weekend—unveiling our baby-blue beast, and looking at each other, smiling, our faces radiant. This was a symbol of our commitment: to poetry, to the past, to each other. There was nothing foolish about it.

* * *

In most histories, the story of the typewriter begins in the Midwestern United States with Christopher Latham Sholes who, it's typically claimed, solved the issue of speed. Sholes's 1868 patent of the “type-writer”—providing the name that stuck after a baffling array of individual writing-machine monikers— was deemed the first machine practical for wide-scale production, largely because of the QWERTY keyboard system Sholes devised. The seemingly random configuration of letters on Sholes's keyboard was a purely mechanical solution, implemented to avoid frequently used letters interfering with each other and causing jams.

Five years later, E. Remington & Sons manufactured Sholes's patent, and that's where many histories end. It's generally implied that Remington took this minor risk, surely knowing all along it would work out, and the world greeted it with open arms.

But early designs were still slower than writing by hand. Remington went through nearly 40 versions in the first six years and all were riddled with defects—carriages jumped, type-bars jammed, weights broke and fell. Not only unpredictable, they were also a commercial failure that Remington nearly abandoned. The company only sold a few hundred machines a year in its early years and it wasn't until the 1880s—nearly a decade after hitting the market—that annual sales exceeded a thousand. By that time, though, Sholes had long been convinced it was a failure that would bankrupt Remington, and he “had totally disowned the typewriter, refusing to own it, or even to use it or recommend it.”

It's a common misconception that the world was waiting for a writing machine. “Resistance to the machine was ubiquitous,” writes the great typewriter historian Michael H. Adler, “and the task of the inventor was a thankless one, as the diaries and letters of many of them indicate.” What seems like a relatively simple device now was one of the most complex consumer machines of the time, containing over 2,000 parts. Most people couldn't wrap their minds around the machine or why they would want to use one, let alone own one.

The business world saw the potential advantages of the typewriter—speed, uniformity, efficiency, interests the general public didn't have—but their use required that an entire section of the workforce learn how to type. At the time, secretaries, clerks, and bookkeepers were strictly the professions of men. But most men in these roles weren’t willing to adjust to this radical technology and, according to historian Victor M. Linhoff, “found the typewriter too hard to understand and use effectively.”

* * *

As the years went by I accumulated more and more typewriters. I found a Remington Rand from the 1940s buried in a pile of small household appliances at Value Village. I bought a 1960s Olympia De Luxe at a yard sale. I spotted an Underwood No. 5 from the 1930s on a friend's back porch, rusting in a rain-soaked cardboard box, and was gifted it. And like that Underwood, most of the typewriters in my collection were gifts: friends leaving me theirs when they moved away, or placing them in my care for semi-permanent safe-keeping as they went on adventures. I don’t know how to fix them, I can barely change the ribbon, I only have a loose knowledge of the common brands, and I’m painfully slow at typing, but somehow I became the typewriter guy.

Calling my ramshackle pile a collection is, at best, questionable. At its peak, I maybe had a dozen, and in the last year or two I've been giving them to friends on the same sort of permanent-loan basis that I acquired most of them a decade or more ago. But in my tiny basement room, with so few other things, the amount of typewriters lining the shelves implies an unhealthy obsession.

* * *

Initially, Remington marketed the typewriter as something housewives could use around the home—essentially a busy work appliance or a plaything—and under this campaign the machine sold horribly. It was only when typewriter trainings for women started spreading across the country that the machine's fate began to change. Suddenly there were people who knew how to use the machines, leading not only to them becoming more common in offices, but giving an opportunity for women to enter the workforce on a grand scale.

This societal change was predictably met with fierce opposition, exploitation, and limited mobility. Corporations restructured themselves to ensure the new female typists would make far less than their male counterparts and never advance to management, while typewriter companies and popular media sold a glamorous image of the “type-writer girl” that assured a steady flow of new employees. At the same time, the typewriter is said to have “made it possible for women to overcome many of the gender-based restrictions that were a traditional part of writing,” which led to more female novelists, poets, and playwrights. The machine was a very complex, very mixed blessing.

The blessing was perhaps just as mixed for the blind, the people initially aligned to benefit the most. While it achieved one of the initial goals of the invention—giving them the power to create clear text to correspond with the sighted—it also led to a more visually-based society where the written word took further precedence. And while a fully functional Braille typewriter was created in the 1890s, it wasn't until the 1950s that one reached mass production.

Early histories of the typewriter didn't see anything complex in its blessing. One from 1918 repeatedly asserted that the typewriter had not only freed “the busy executive from the bondage of the pen,” but also “freed the world from pen slavery.” An article in the magazine Typewriter Topics the same year claimed that, “the typewriter undoubtedly has been more instrumental in the world’s progress than anything else.” Remington immediately used both these assertions for their advertising and added that it also completed “the economic emancipation of womankind.”

Today, if it's not being dismissed as a step toward the computer, the typewriter is being celebrated as an icon of artistic creation and poetic freedom. It's an artful symbol that graphic designers embrace when they want to imply a certain whimsy, or the feeling that the guy with the old-timey hat typing poems on the sidewalk in the tourist part of town provides and cashes in on. But for the first century of its existence it was associated almost solely with the business world. It didn't show the personality of the user in the way of handwriting—it was cold, hard, made of steel, and used for office work drudgery. It was the antithesis of the monetarily-unconcerned free expression we associate with poetry and creative thought. Many authors refused to use them, even a generation or two after their popularity was firmly established. Their reason—a difficulty having a creative relationship with an impersonal technological device—was essentially the same as contemporary writers and artists who champion the typewriter as an inspiring alternative to the inhuman computer.

* * *

In his history of the typewriter, Michael H. Adler hands the inventor title to Pellegrino Turri, the Italian man who gifted a typewriter to Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, the blind countess, so she could write letters. After the Countess's death, the writing machine was given to the late inventor's son and its history ends there, its fate unknown. But Turri's son donated some of the Countess' typewritten letters to a local historical archive and those sixteen preserved letters prove the impressive efficiency of the machine: not only did it exist, but it perhaps worked better than most of the other writing machines that came after it, machines that, as Adler says, “worked badly, in varying degrees of badness.”

Sources seem split on whether Turri and the Countess is a story of two dear friends or a love story between two star-crossed lovers, separated by distance, each married to the wrong person. Unsurprisingly, the latter tends to attract more excitement than the former. Given the contents of the sixteen preserved letters—chaste on the surface with potentially suggestive undertones—either is just as likely and since, as Adler writes, early typewriter history was “a kind of happy historical anarchy in which general ignorance was interpreted as license for perverting the facts to suit any purpose,” I believe there's room for their story to become anything we'd like it to be. Carey Wallace's lyric 2010 historical novel The Blind Contessa's New Machine imagines Turri and the Countess as a hidden, tortured love affair, and the book seems to have secured the internet age's interpretation of their relationship. And how good it feels to say: The typewriter began as a symbol of love, an elaborate gift to a blind woman.

Maybe that's the true origin, or maybe it's a myth. Or maybe the desire for it is just the result of a limitation we've put on our stories: that romantic love trumps all, that dedicated friendship doesn't carry the narrative weight to land with the necessary force. But I want to believe that we as humans are open to change, that love stories can mean more than romance, that I could say: The typewriter began as a symbol of friendship, an invention to make a friend's transition into blindness a little less difficult, and it would be enough. Isn't there still awe in the fact that a person created a machine not to achieve notoriety, fame, and fortune—like so many writing-machine inventors that came after him—but to simply help a friend in need?

I like to imagine that I could say it—the typewriter began as a symbol of friendship—and together, you and I could walk away from this history feeling the strength of our respective friendships. We could consider their importance, the lengths we'd go to show our friends we care, and the degree to which they've changed our lives as much as any romantic relationship or mechanical device.


image: Betsy Agosta