On this date in 1868 Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule were granted a patent for a prototype of the typewriter which evolved into the form which became widespread, including the QWERTY key layout – named for the first six letters in the upper row – and which became the international standard (the one I am using now). The so-called Sholes-Glidden typewriter was the first typewriter to be commercially viable, and revolutionized office work and business. The patent application marks the first time that the word “typewriter” was used (spelled “type-writer”).
The invention of the typewriter was incremental, ideas being provided by numerous inventors working independently or in competition with each other over a series of decades. As with the automobile, telephone, and telegraph, a number of people contributed insights and inventions that eventually resulted in ever more commercially successful instruments. In fact, historians have estimated that some form of typewriter was invented 52 times as engineers tried to come up with a workable design.
In 1575 an Italian printmaker, Francesco Rampazzetto, invented the ‘scrittura tattile’, a machine to impress letters in papers. In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a patent in Britain for a machine that, from the patent, appears to have been similar to a typewriter. The patent states:
[he] hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and public records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.
But it was not until the mid-19th century that serious progress was made in creating a typewriter that was efficient and commercially viable. At that time, the increasing pace of business communication, due to the Industrial Revolution, had created a need for mechanization of the writing process. Stenographers and telegraphers could take down information at rates up to 130 words per minute, whereas a writer with a pen was limited to a maximum of 30 words per minute (the 1853 speed record).
From 1829 to 1870, many printing or typing machines were patented by inventors in Europe and America, but either failed to go into commercial production, or were not successful. Charles Thurber developed multiple patents, of which his first in 1843 was developed as an aid to the blind, such as the 1845 Chirographer. In 1855, the Italian Giuseppe Ravizza created a prototype typewriter called Cembalo scrivano o macchina da scrivere a tasti (“Scribe harpsichord, or machine for writing with keys”). It was an advanced machine that let the user see the writing as it was typed. In 1861, Father Francisco João de Azevedo, a Brazilian priest, made his own typewriter with basic materials and tools, such as wood and knives. In that same year the Brazilian emperor D. Pedro II, presented a gold medal to Father Azevedo for this invention. Many Brazilians as well as the Brazilian federal government recognize Fr. Azevedo as the real inventor of the typewriter, a claim that has been the subject of some controversy. In 1865, John Pratt, of Centre, Alabama, built a machine called the Pterotype which appeared in an 1867 Scientific American article and inspired other inventors, including Sholes.
In 1865, Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen of Denmark invented the Hansen Writing Ball, which went into commercial production in 1870 and was the first commercially sold typewriter. It was a success in Europe and was reported as being used in offices in London as late as 1909. Malling-Hansen used a solenoid escapement to return the carriage on some of his models, which makes him a candidate for the title of inventor of the first “electric” typewriter.
According to the book Hvem er skrivekuglens opfinder? (Who is the inventor of the Writing Ball?), written by Malling-Hansen’s daughter, Johanne Agerskov, in 1865, Malling-Hansen made a porcelain model of the keyboard of his writing ball and experimented with different placements of the letters to achieve the fastest writing speed. Malling-Hansen placed the letters on short pistons that went directly through the ball and down to the paper. This, together with the placement of the letters so that the fastest writing fingers struck the most frequently used letters, made the Hansen Writing Ball the first typewriter to produce text substantially faster than a person could write by hand. The Hansen Writing Ball was produced with only upper case characters.
The first typewriter to be fully commercially successful was invented in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although Sholes soon disowned the machine and refused to use, or even to recommend it. The working prototype was made by the machinist Matthias Schwalbach. The patent (US 79,265) was sold for $12,000 to Densmore and Yost, who made an agreement with E. Remington and Sons (then famous as a manufacturer of sewing machines) to commercialize the machine as the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. Remington began production of its first typewriter on March 1, 1873, in Ilion, New York. It had a QWERTY keyboard layout, which because of the machine’s success, was slowly adopted by other typewriter manufacturers. As with most other early typewriters, because the type bars strike upwards, the typist could not see the characters as they were typed.
Sholes had moved to Milwaukee and became the editor of a newspaper. Following a strike by compositors at his printing press, he tried building a machine for typesetting, but this was a failure and he quickly abandoned the idea. He arrived at the typewriter through a different route. His initial goal was to create a machine to number pages of a book, tickets, and so on. He began work on this at Kleinsteuber’s machine shop in Milwaukee, together with a fellow printer Samuel W. Soule, and they patented a numbering machine on November 13, 1866.
Sholes and Soule showed their machine to Carlos Glidden, a lawyer and amateur inventor who spent time at Kleinsteuber’s working on a mechanical plow, and who became interested in developing a typing machine. Further inspiration came in July 1867, when Sholes came across the article in Scientific American describing the Pterotype by John Pratt. From the description, Sholes decided that the Pterotype was too complex and set out to make his own machine, whose name he got from the article, reducing “typewriting machine” to “type-writer.”
For this project, Soule was again enlisted, and Glidden joined them as a third partner who provided the funds. The Scientific American article (unillustrated) had figuratively used the phrase “literary piano,” and the first model that the trio built had a keyboard literally resembling a piano. It had black keys and white keys, laid out in two rows. It did not contain keys for the numerals 0 or 1 because the letters O and I were deemed sufficient (a shortcut still found on typewriters well into the 20th century). This was the original layout:
3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M
The first row was made of ivory and the second of ebony, the rest of the framework was wooden. It was in this form that Sholes, Glidden and Soule were granted patents for their invention on June 23 and July 14, 1868. The first document to be produced on a typewriter was a contract that Sholes had written, in his capacity as the Comptroller for the city of Milwaukee. Machines similar to Sholes’s had been previously used by the blind for embossing, but by Sholes’s time the inked ribbon had been invented, which made typewriting in its current form possible.
At this stage, the Sholes-Glidden-Soule typewriter was only one among dozens of similar inventions. They wrote hundreds of letters on their machine to various people, one of whom was James Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Densmore foresaw that the typewriter would be highly profitable, and offered to buy a share of the patent, without even having laid eyes on the machine. The trio immediately sold him one-fourth of the patent in return for his paying all their expenses so far. When Densmore eventually examined the machine, he declared that it was good for nothing in its current form, and urged them to start improving it. Discouraged, Soule and Glidden left the project, leaving Sholes and Densmore in sole possession of the patent.
Realizing that stenographers would be among the first and most important users of the machine, and therefore best in a position to judge its suitability, they sent experimental versions to a few stenographers. The most important of them was James O. Clephane, of Washington D.C., who tried the instruments, subjecting them to such unsparing tests that he destroyed them, one after another, as fast as they could be made and sent to him. His judgments were endlessly caustic, causing Sholes to lose his patience and temper. But Densmore insisted that this was exactly what they needed:
This candid fault-finding is just what we need. We had better have it now than after we begin manufacturing. Where Clephane points out a weak lever or rod let us make it strong. Where a spacer or an inker works stiffly, let us make it work smoothly. Then, depend upon Clephane for all the praise we deserve.
Sholes took this advice and set to improve the machine at every iteration, until they were satisfied that Clephane had taught them everything he could. By this time, they had manufactured 50 machines or so, at an average cost of $250. They decided to have the machine examined by an expert mechanic, who directed them to E. Remington and Sons (which later became the Remington Arms Company), manufacturers of firearms, sewing machines, and farm tools. In early 1873 they approached Remington, who decided to buy the patent from them. Sholes sold his half for $12,000, while Densmore, still a stronger believer in the machine, insisted on a royalty, which would eventually fetch him $1.5 million.
Sholes returned to Milwaukee and continued to work on new improvements for the typewriter throughout the 1870s, which included the QWERTY keyboard (1873). James Densmore had suggested splitting up commonly used letter combinations in order to solve a jamming problem caused by the slow method of recovering from a keystroke: weights, not springs, returned all parts to the “rest” position. This concept was later refined by Sholes, and the resulting QWERTY layout is still used today on both typewriters and English language computer keyboards, although the jamming problem no longer exists. Various other layouts have been suggested over the years to try to improve upon the QWERTY layout, most notably the Dvorak system (pictured). But the oddly quirky QWERTY system is undoubtedly here to stay, at least for English language keyboards. One day I will regale you with tales of typing on public computers in Argentina, Russia, Croatia, and Japan. The results were not pretty.
Some days I have a real challenge to come up with a recipe to match the day’s tale, today being one of them. I could be lame and find a classic recipe from Milwaukee, birthplace of the Sholes-Gidden typewriter. But I don’t get really excited by beer and bratwurst. Inspiration struck when I remembered a novel use for the typewriter. In 1916, newspaper writer Don Marquis introduced Archy, a fictional cockroach, into his daily newspaper column at The New York Evening Sun. Archy (whose name was always written in lower case in the book titles, but was upper case when Marquis would write about him in narrative form) was a cockroach who had been a free verse poet in a previous life, and took to writing stories and poems on an old typewriter at the newspaper office when everyone in the building had left. Archy would climb up on to the typewriter and hurl himself at the keys, laboriously typing out stories of the daily challenges and travails of a cockroach one letter at a time. Archy’s best friend was Mehitabel, an alley cat. The two of them shared a series of day-to-day adventures that made satiric commentary on daily life in the city during the 1910’s and 1920’s, eventually anthologized as The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel.
Because he was a cockroach, Archy was unable to operate the shift key on the typewriter (he jumped on each key to type; since using shift requires two keys to be pressed simultaneously, he physically could not use capitals), and so all of his verse was written without capitalization or punctuation. (Writing in his own persona, though, Marquis always used correct capitalization and punctuation). There was one momentous day too, when Archy hit the shift-lock key by accident, and the subsequent story was all in upper case (“CAPITALS AT LAST”).
In my researches I found this poem (“wotthehell” was one of Archy’s common interjections).
i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell
So . . . fried oysters it is, in honor of Archy and his typewriter. I must say that I infinitely prefer oysters on the half shell, but I am not averse to serving them in other ways. I sometimes make oyster stew and oyster fritters, but breaded and deep fried is my favorite way to cook them. The key things you need to know are that Japanese panko makes the best breading, you must fry the oysters in small batches quickly at 375°F/190°C to ensure that the oysters are crispy on the outside and still juicy on the inside, and you must use the wet hand/dry hand method for breading (otherwise you will make a mess and the breading will get soggy). Here’s my heuristic recipe from memory.
For an appetizer I use 6 oysters per person, and for a main course, one dozen. Lay out in a row shallow bowls of plain flour, beaten egg, and panko. Pat the oysters as dry as possible with paper towels. Choose a wet hand and a dry hand. With your dry hand, roll an oyster in the flour to coat, then drop it in the egg without getting your hand wet. Use your wet hand to roll the oyster in the egg, and then transfer it to the panko without touching it. Use your dry hand to completely coat the oyster with panko and place it on a wire rack. Repeat for all the oysters, cover them with wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Heat oil in a deep fryer to 375°F/190°C. Fry the oysters in small batches, turning them once so that they are golden on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Drain on wire racks and serve. I normally make them to order so that they are crisp and hot – this is not a recipe for a big dinner party.
A dipping sauce is a nice addition. I usually use the classic mix of tomato ketchup and horseradish, which diners mix at the table to suit their own tastes. But you can use whatever tickles your fancy, such as herbed mayonnaise, soy sauce and fresh ginger, or whatever. Serve them on a bed of lettuce as an appetizer, or with French fries and a salad for a main course.