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Artifact Spotlight: The Typewriter

"Click, clack, click click, clack, ding!"

Whatever your age may be, it's a series of sounds you've likely heard before and recognize. Whether you've heard it in person, in the movies, or simply as a media sound effect, the classic sounds of a typewriter have secured themselves a place in the social consciousness of our working culture. And it is a place well earned.

History of the Typewriter

Patented by American inventor Christopher Lathom Sholes in 1868, the typewriter was perhaps the greatest innovation to writing technology since the printing press (invented by German inventor Johannes Gutenburg in the 1430's) (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2018). By 1873, Sholes had signed a contract with E. Remington and Sons - a gunsmith company - to manufacture his invention. In 1874, the machine was available for sale for the very first time, and was aptly dubbed, "the Remington." At first, the Remington could only type in capital letters, but the "shift" key was added to the model in 1878, allowing it to type in both uppercase and lowercase letters.

The first portable typewriter models appeared on the market in 1909.

Photo of a Remington portable typewriter in the Plainsman Museum

^ A Remington portable typewriter, c. 1920's, Plainsman Museum collection

Similar to our modern computers, the typewriter went through many stages to become a practical device for everyday use. Existing writing machines that inspired Sholes' invention were as large as pianos, a bit like how computers used to take up whole rooms in the 1960's. Like many 20th century computers, earlier versions of the typewriter could be slow, and did not work very efficiently. However, as trial and error went on, Sholes and others were able to develop models that were smaller, worked at faster speeds, and could meet the needs of their time. Soon enough, the typewriter took the world by storm, and the machine could be found in just about every office, and in many a home.

^ Underwood Typewriter shipping crate, c. 1910's, Plainsman Museum collection

In 1872, inventor Thomas Edison developed the first electrically operated typewriter. However, this technology wasn't adapted for broader office use until James Smathers' developments in the 1920's. Electric powered typewriters began to dominate the scene in the 1960's, and remained a staple of office life for decades afterwards. While most typewriters have now been replaced by computers, they can still be found in offices and homes to this day.

Reflections on the Typewriter

When I think about the history of the typewriter, one of the things that strikes me thematically is the fact that the first typewriters were manufactured by a gunsmith company. In some ways, this seems rather fitting. "The pen is mightier than the sword," after all. Perhaps it may also be said that "the typewriter is mightier than the gun?"

It is mind-boggling to think how many "battles" the typewriter has served in throughout its history - both grand and small, for good or for ill. Everything from helping the average worker type up their reports for the day, to officers writing their final letters home in wartime. From drafting the manuscript of the next inspiring novel, to drafting dictators' edicts of destruction in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Words are powerful, and the typewriter was a tool by which humankind utilized that power - for better or for worse.

As I look at the typewriters here in the Plainsman Museum, it's quite awe-inspiring to think about how many different hands have typed at those keys over the years. Were they doctors? Lawyers? Secretaries? Teachers? Or perhaps even a child typing up a short story for their mother or grandmother? Or maybe a farmer typing a love letter to the girl who lives down the lane?

In any event, I do wonder how carefully all of them must've approached these machines and their work on them. Nowadays, we hardly think about how incredible it is that we have the "delete" function on our keyboards (which I have used many times while writing this blog post), and how we are able to get so much out of a one-time purchase of steel, glass, and silica. Back then, one had to think very carefully before they began striking those letters to paper. While typewriter letters were arranged in the familiar QWERTY formation, the "delete" key was absent for quite some time. There was no "undo button." While there was perhaps more paper and ink at hand to try again, and maybe even some form of whiteout, it cost a lot more to "try again" back then than it does for us today.

...Or does it?

While it may have cost more in materials to "try again" in the past, we can still feel the cost, in other ways, for the things we write if we don't approach our devices and our words carefully. This isn't to say that we shouldn't feel at liberty to express our thoughts and opinions in writing, nor that our approach to writing need always be serious or formal. On the contrary, it is one of the great privileges that we have as Americans to express our thoughts publicly, and there is plenty of room for being fun and casual in our writing. However, I do wonder if there is something we can learn about our current modes of writing by looking at this example from our past.

As stated above, there was no "delete" key on the old typewriters. In one sense, we could say the same for our communications on the Internet. Are we as careful as our ancestors about what we post out there for all the world to see? Are we careful to compose, proofread and edit that which we use to express ourselves to others before hitting "post" or "send?" Like the guns manufactured before them, typewriters had the potential to do harm when used in the wrong way. Do we view our current written discourse in the same way? Do we see the action of hitting the "post" or "send" icons as resulting in a "bang!" or a "ding?" Do we truly realize the great potential of our words - for great enhancement or great toxicity - and treat them accordingly? Perhaps it's worth it to not become too "trigger happy" with our words, but to instead slow down, take a deep breath, and make every stroke of the letters count for what we are truly aiming for.

While typewriters may not be able to speak, they certainly do have a voice if you listen long and hard enough. I do wonder what stories the typewriters in the museum could tell, and what stories they were indeed instrumental in telling as writers of the past used them to compose their tales, write their letters, and record their histories. What may appear at first to be such a simple, inert thing actually revolutionized the world as we know it, and we can still feel its influence today. While the classic metallic "click, clack, click, ding!" may now be replaced with the tapping of plastic, the same function is there, and is firmly embedded in our social consciousness. We now have yet to see how these gifts of language and technology will be used in our time, and how they will progress in the years to come.

Works Cited:

Encyclopædia Britannica. "Typewriter." Last modified February 13, 2018. Accessed August 27, 2020.

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