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Collections Blog

Object: Typewriter

Oct 04, 2018

I-0443a
Typewriter
American
New York, NY
ca. 1893
Materials: Metal, plastic, wood

Charles Thurber’s “Chirographer” typewriter, image from http://www.officemuseum.com via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, with the emergence of new digital technology, older technology also known as low tech is slowly on the outs. The typewriter is turning into an obsolete machine, much like home telephones and cassette tapes. A patent for the first typewriter was introduced in 1714. In 1845 a working machine was produced. Invented by, Charles Thurber it had 36 plunger like keys that would strike the paper and print the letters on the paper. Most of the early machines were large, about the size of a table top. They were not easy to transport and were very heavy. In 1856, a typewriter made by the Wheatstone Co. was the first machine to be produced with individual keys, it struck the paper from the bottom. These early typewriters came in many different shapes and designs, many look nothing like the keyboard you see on your computer today.

The typewriter was not inexpensive to produce and would cost up to $100 at the time of its first introduction, equivalent to roughly $2,500 today. Typewriters rapidly become popular, especially in the business world. This created a need for cheaper typewriters to be produced. In 1856 a smaller, more portable typewriter known as the index typewriter was introduced. It was manufactured by the American Typewriter Company and was sold for only $5. It was cast in one piece that sat on a heavy base. It had an arc shaped plate at the top that displayed the letters and numbers. There was a roller in front that the paper went through that could be fed by turning a knob on the right side. There was a rubber band with letters under the plate and two keys that shifted between the rows to indicate what key was going to strike the paper. Under the plate was a small type guide that the chosen key would strike through.

Image from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.

This style of typewriter would eventually die out as more user-friendly, faster versions came about. Electric typewriters emerged during the 1920’s, but by the 1970’s the typewriter was becoming a machine of the past. The images of offices filled with women clicking away on the keyboard and the distinct sound of the keys striking the paper and the bell ringing when you have come to the end of your line is slowly fading away. These once noisy machines have been replaced by the more quieter and versatile computer. Today, some people like musician John Mayer do still prefer to use a typewriter. He likes how he is not interrupted by spell check or grammar suggestions. He states that he likes to see his mistakes. He can see his brain working through his writing process. It is not just musicians, but actors like Tom Hanks have kept the nostalgia alive. Tom Hanks personalizes his notes by typing them from a typewriter. There is a renewed interest in using typewriter especially with busking street poets. They can set up shop on a random street and share their words with others. Sometimes taking requests to add that artist element to a love note or thank you note. Though not as portable as the more modern computer or iPad. It is still nice to hear the nostalgic clicking sounds of the once beloved typewriter. [Marisol Martinez, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Allan, Tony, and Richard F. H. Polt. Typewriter: The History, the Machine, the Writers. New York: Shelter Harbor Press, 2015.

Roby, Henry W., and Milo Milton Quaife. Henry W. Roby’s Story of the Invention of the Typewriter. [Whitefish, Mont.]: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.

Science Museum (Great Britain). The Typewriter. London: Science Museum, 1978.

Weller, Charles Edward. Early History of the Typewriter. [Place of publication not identified]: Nabu Press, 2012.

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