The concept of a typewriter dates back at least to 1714, when Englishman Henry Mill filed a vaguely-worded patent for "an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another." But the first typewriter proven to have worked was built by the Italian Pellegrino Turri in 1808 for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono (as established by Michael Adler in his excellent 1973 book The Writing Machine); unfortunately, we do not know what the machine looked like, but we do have specimens of letters written by the Countess on it.
Numerous inventors in Europe and the U.S. worked on typewriters in the 19th century, but successful commercial production began only with the "writing ball" of Danish pastor Malling Hansen (1870). This well-engineered device looked rather like a pincushion. Nietzsche's mother and sister once gave him one for Christmas. He hated it.
The first commercially successful typewriter came to market in 1874. It was invented by Christopher Lathem Sholes, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The development of this machine was backed by Carlos Glidden and was manufactured by Remington & Sons. This typewriter became known as the "Sholes & Glidden Type Writer". It is a beautifully decorated machine, covered in hand painted floral groupings.
Christopher L. Sholes, a Milwaukee newspaperman, poet, and part-time inventor, was the main creator of this machine. The Sholes & Glidden typed only in capital letters, and it introduced the QWERTY keyboard, which is very much with us today. The keyboard was probably designed to separate frequently-used pairs of typebars so that the typebars would not clash and get stuck at the printing point. The S&G was a decorative machine, boasting painted flowers and decals. It looked rather like a sewing machine, as it was manufactured by the sewing machine department of the Remington arms company. For an in-depth look at this historic device, visit Darryl Rehr's Web site "The First Typewriter."
The Sholes & Glidden had limited success, but its successor, the Remington, soon became a dominant presence in the industry.
The Sholes & Glidden, like many early typewriters, is an understroke or "blind" writer: the typebars are arranged in a circular basket under the platen (the printing surface) and type on the bottom of the platen. This means that the typist (confusingly called a "typewriter" herself in the early days) has to lift up the carriage to see her work. Another example of an understroke typebar machine is the Caligraph of 1880, the second typewriter to appear on the American market
As of 1890, only a few other typewriters had came onto the market, with moderate success. Things were about to change though, as the demand for the new writing machine grew dramatically during the 1890's. Many inventors tried their hands at creating an improved type writing machine and manufactures raced to keep pace with the global demand. During this discovery period, through trial and error, ingenuity and invention, hundreds of unusually designed typewriters appeared. Among them were machines with curved keyboards, double keyboards and no keyboards at all!
The standard big, black machines that you might be familiar with such as the Underwoods and Remingtons from the 1930s and 40s are the result of many years of mechanical evolution. It is to this wonderful age of invention and modification, that I and other collectors are so attracted. The diversity of design and the evolution of the machine provides a rich world for us to explore.