The forces and innovations behind the first writing machine
The great American expansion that plastered the west with woodblock-printed WANTED posters was made possible by three 19th century innovations: the railway, the telegram, and the revolver. Directly and indirectly, they lead to the creation of a new machine that, for the first time, allowed writers to write directly with type. It would seriously alter the future of letters.
In 1869, The Pacific Railroad opened its final leg, linking Iowa to San Francisco. Settlers poured into the interior of the continent. Some were new to America, having travelled from Europe to take advantage of the ample space. Many were already Americans, eager to leave behind lives in the east dominated by the recent Civil War. Whether they fought in the war or lived in cities pressed into industrialization to supply the war effort, the west promised fresh air and a fresh start.
Their absence left the industries back east with a labour shortage. New and improved American factories needed workers, and the opening of the west itself had created all kinds of new business opportunities. But workers kept leaving, moving west. Businesses were forced to make more with less.
Every second counted. Office workers could no longer afford the time to write things out in Spencerian Cursive. Instead, they used abbreviated analogues of full words. Stenography was nothing new—crafty (or lazy) scribes used shorthand writing systems thousands of years before any Americans leaned on the practice—but different and competing systems developed in 19th century America. These worked, but presented a new problem: stenography called for a whole different kind of literacy. Unlike conventional written English, which most people learned in public schools, learning shorthand required a significant time commitment from would-be stenographers. Moreover, given the various systems, familiarity with one didn’t entail familiarity with others.
Meanwhile, a new method of communication had emerged that did make communication speedier—just not in the office. The electrical telegraph was capable of sending messages clear across the country at lightning speed. It was simple: operators closed a switch, electricity flowed through the completed circuit and pressed a needle on a lever into a moving strip of paper. Using Samuel Morse’s coded system of short and long presses—another analogue to writing out words—operators could send decipherable messages wherever telegraph lines went. As a rule, wherever the railway went, telegraph lines followed, but telegraph lines actually beat the railway in their race across the United States.
In 1866, a team of inventors in Wisconsin modified a telegraph key—the switch that sent the electrical impulse through the line—to press the letter ‘W’ to a page. The two printers on the team, C. Latham Sholes and Samuel Soule, had previously created a machine to print page numbers. Their machinist colleague, Carlos Glidden, had read about a convoluted new writing machine, the “Pterotype”. His suggestion: work with what Sholes and Soule had started with their numbering machine, and make their own writing machine.
By the end of 1867, they’d done just that. The result resembled a piano, with two rows of ebony and ivory keys. On a horizontal platen, it printed capital letters, a period, and the numbers 2-9, with ‘I’ and ‘O’ standing in for the missing digits. They called the new machine the “Type-Writer”, and used it to compose letters soliciting investors. The invention proved so exciting that James Densmore bought a 25% stake in the project, sight unseen.
There was only one problem: the Type-Writer wasn’t very good. They needed help.
The military demands of the American Civil War had pushed American gunsmiths like E. Remington & Sons to elevate their craft. Union soldiers esteemed Remington’s revolver for its reliability and sturdy construction. Union Army veteran, cowboy, and sharp-shooting showman Buffalo Bill favoured his for over forty years. By then, the war was long over, and while their revolvers found their own homes in the wild west, E. Remington & Sons had long since found other ways to employ their capacity for manufacturing machined metal goods. In 1870 they started making sewing machines. Three years later, they struck an agreement with Densmore and Sholes.
Over the intervening six years since partnering on the Type-Writer, Densmore and Sholes had diligently improved the invention. Looking for market feedback, they’d shipped Type-Writers to stenographers for testing. The results weren’t promising; the machines broke, the stenographers hated them. To keep their venture running, Densmore and Sholes manufactured and sold a small quantity of Type-Writers, with similar results. But the process did improve the machine: buttons replaced piano keys, a cylindrical platen replaced the horizontal, and letters were ordered in a proto-QWERTY layout (QWE.TY, to be exact) to prevent jams.
The machine they handed Remington nearly resembled the essential typewriter. But it was still far from perfect. Remington put their machining expertise to work on the Type-Writer. Although they quickly started manufacturing and selling typewriters, it still took years of refining and improving the machines before they really caught on. This meant changing the mechanism so that typists could actually see their work, adding lowercase letters, and using a lever to affect carriage returns. But there was one flaw in the machine they couldn’t fix, which would come to define the look of typewritten text to this day.
Letters have different widths—‘i’ is obviously not as wide as ‘M’—but the mechanism in typewriters that moved the platen and paper with each keystroke had no way of distinguishing between letters, or moving any more or less than a set amount. Every letter, therefore, had to occupy the same space on the page. Entirely due to this shortcoming, the Type-Writer was responsible for the introduction of monospaced type. Monospaced type, over the many decades since, has treated us to all kinds of visual serendipity, including the fusions of letter and shape, syntax and space.
But to the builders of early typewriters, monospaced type posed a visual problem: what to do with the empty space between narrow letters.
The solution wasn’t mechanical, but typographical. Remington, and other typewriter manufacturers, simply used a heavy type with exaggerated serifs. These Slab Serifs evened out the width of letters, filled in blank space, and visually connected words. Today, Slab Serifs are almost synonymous with typewriters; fonts like Courier and American Typewriter represent that in the digital age.
For all its growing pains, typewriters caught on and became ubiquitous in offices. They increased productivity and opened doors to women working in the office. The uniform text they produced was perfect in the business world—individual expression was never the point of business correspondence, anyway. In only a few decades, the typewriter had all but pushed handwriting right off the page.
Fortunately for Letters, the world is full of other surfaces.