Today, the typewriter teaches us its purpose. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I have the oddest old
artifact on my study shelf. It's my
great-grandfather's letter book. It's a bound
volume, and all that's left in it are tissue paper
pages. He wrote letters with a dipped ink pen on
regular paper that'd once lain between the tissues.
Before he tore the letters out and mailed them, he
blotted them and left a copy behind on the tissue.
The fuzzy imprint of one brief telegraphic letter,
written in 1891, says:
Gentlemen, Please quote me the expense of
shipping car load of saw dust from your
Why did he use such a crude method? Well, consider
the alternatives. Carbon paper was an invention
that'd been around for twenty-two years back then,
but you couldn't press a dipped pen hard enough to
use it. Maybe you could get enough force with a
pencil. But you didn't
write letters in pencil.
With a typewriter and carbon paper, copying
would've been a cinch, and the typewriter had also
been invented by then. But it hadn't yet found its
way to great-grandpa.
An inventor named Christopher Sholes started to
develop a workable typewriter just after the Civil
War. He drew in co-inventors, and together they
made improvements. In 1872 they found a
manufacturer -- the small-arms maker, Remington.
After the War, Remington needed a peacetime
product. The first Remington machine came out in
1874. Four years later, it'd developed into
something very much like the manual typewriter you
may've once used. So why was great-grandpa still
using ink pens and blotter copies in 1891?
Historian Cynthia Monaco tells us that only five
thousand typewriters had been sold by 1880. People
loved to watch typewriter
demonstrations in stores. It was an exciting
novelty, but people saw no use for it in their
daily lives. The Victorian rite of letter-writing
followed rules and conventions. Good handwritten
letters were the mark of a lady or a gentleman. A
typed letter reminded people of printed flyers. One
backwoodsman, offended when he got his first
typewritten letter, wrote back, "You don't need to print no letters fer me. I kin read writin."
So the Remington Company did badly when it first
tried to sell its machines to domestic buyers.
Typewriters finally broke into the market when the
business world saw their value. Ten times as many
typewriters were sold in the six years after 1880
than in the six years before. By the time
great-grandpa wrote his letter to the lumber
company, the times were just catching up with him.
By then, most small businesses had at least one
Like all new technologies, the typewriter had to
teach us what its real role in our lives would be.
And that happens only after an invention goes to
market. We still like to receive handwritten notes
from friends. But just try to imagine a modern
business office still using hand-written letters
and blotter copybooks.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Monaco, C., The Difficult Birth of the Typewriter.
American Heritage of Invention and Technology,
Spring/Summer 1988, pp. 10-21.
This is a greatly rewritten version of Episode 100.
A leaf from great-grandpa's copy book, 1891
From Appleton's Cyclopaedia of
Applied Mechanics, 1892
An early Remington typewriter
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.