Manual typewriter

Classic Projects: Manual typewriter

A hybrid design incorporating elements from both the piano and the sewing machine, after a slow start the mechanical typewriter reigned supreme in offices for more than a century

The cultural shift from handwriting to 'type writing' started in the mid-19th century. The typewriter is one of the great evolutionary designs in engineering. Although we can go back to William Burt in 1829 for the earliest documented design of a mechanical device for producing type, we know for certain that there were designers in the 18th century working on similar lines. There is a record of a patent in 1714 for an "artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another". By 1808 Italian Pellegrino Turri was working on a device to assist blind people to write.

There are more than 50 'inventors' of the typewriter', but the first recognisable modern machine was the Sholes and Glidden design, which gave the world not only the word 'typewriter', but also the QWERTY keyboard layout that has become today's standard. One of the quirks of the arrangement is that the longest common English word you can write on the QWERTY line of keys is 'typewriter'.

The importance of the Sholes and Glidden invention was that the patent eventually ended up in the hands of sewing machine manufacturer E Remington and Sons, who began commercial production in 1873. The first model wasn't received well. It could only produce type in upper case, which was, as it still is, considered ill-mannered or SHOUTY.

The second model corrected this and became a classic of sorts, in that the requirement for producing documents approaching the speed of shorthand and the legibility of print was finally being addressed. But the process was critically flawed in that the operator was unable to see what was being typed. Added to this, the typewriters were expensive and unreliable. The strange machine that looked like a cross between a sewing machine and a piano still had a long way to go.

The next phase in the history of the mechanical typewriter was a period of standardisation that was achieved incrementally, with designers chipping away at problems such as visibility. Typing 'blind' was one of the many issues that needed resolving. The innovation of 'front striking' led to visible typewriting in a successful machine called the Daugherty Visible.

The Daugherty, introduced in the 1890s, also gave us the four-bank keyboard convention that was to survive until the addition of a fifth 'F key' bank on computer keyboards. But the biggest problem was the jamming of typebars at high speed. Although designers fought for decades to eradicate the problem, they were never entirely successful, and jamming remained an aspect of typewriting that could only truly be overcome by the skill of the user.

Exceptional typists could reach 120 words per minute, which is only half the speed of shorthand, but four times faster than copying text by hand. Typists tended to be women, which meant the typewriter had a huge effect on women's access to work: by 1901 there were 166,000 female clerks in Britain – a colossal increase on the 2,000 half a century before.

As the design became more reliable, standards such as the Underwood Five became the workhorses of clerical typing pools. It was the typewriter (along with the telephone) that sculpted the way offices worked in the 20th century. As the desktop computer became the clerical tool of choice, the typewriter clung on for dear life. The inevitable happened in 2012, when the last ever machine (an electronic version) made in Britain headed for retirement in the Science Museum.

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