RP sends me a Hammond typewriter, circa 1905, a mechanical writing device with a keyboard. The history of the typewriter is vital to understanding how we think about words and machines. How did the manual keyboard become ubiquitous?
The keyboard is our number one interface with everyday machines in our lives, yet in the history of mechanical writing, keyboards were not inevitable. The birth of the keyboard owes its debt to the invention of the typewriter, the prototypical mechanical writing machine.
Historians at the Science Museum of London say some form of “typewriter” was invented 52 times in the 19th century. Only about a half of these inventions involved a keyboard. The other form was built around an index. No one person is credited with the invention because many minds and hands contributed to its developmental stage.
The index form is a manually maneuverable ball with character/letters, transferring writing to paper without the horizontal span of hands. The index used a piston to turn the ball. Keyboard inventors adapted a salient feature of the index machines; the circumference of a rotating ball necessitated the grouping together of most used characters/letters. The QWERTY keyboard adopted the expediency of oft-used letters in a group; certain fingers on a spread human hand were stronger, better equipped for predominating character/letters.
The nature of invention does not occur in a straight line built upon one concept. The typewriter was patented as early as 1714, yet the world saw little practical use for automatic writing until as late as 1870, when typewriters began to be used in commerce. These early typewriters did not transfer the character to the paper in print at point of impact: termed “blind typing,” the typist had to “develop” the paper later to see print.
The inventors of the first popular keyboard machine (1867), Sholes, Gidden, and Soule (inventor, mechanic and printer respectively) were so disappointed in sales that they sold their patent. The first producer, the Remington Company, manufactured sewing machines. The Remington typewriters controlled carriage return with a sewing machine style footpad.
The triumph of the keyboard was slow: the Danish Index (writing ball) invented in 1865 by The Reverend Malling-Hansen was still in use in 1909. This index machine was the first to attain writing speeds faster than a professional scribe at 30 words per minute. By 1910, typists and telegraphers could achieve 130 worlds per minute.
Three small countries and two preachers (one mentioned above) ushered in the mechanical “word.” Various permutations in mechanical writing aimed to help the blind and partially sighted to write and see a uniform typeface in real time. In Brazil, Father Francisco Joao de Azevado created a homemade wooden machine with strike-able levers made of table knives in 1861. The “strike” feature wouldn't have been necessary if not for the previous invention in 1808 by Pellegrino Turri in Italy, a keyboard machine adapted to make a carbon copy.
Index machine inventors were at work on speed. William Austin Burt’s “typo-writer” (1829) used a dial with solenoids: his machine created clear characters in many fonts, possible with a changeable index, answering the problem of uniformity so important to legal documents. Uniformity did not depend on the pressure of a finger. The Science Museum of London claims Burt’s invention was the first typewriter documented. A feature of this machine was the lack of inter-meshed typebars (remember those?).
The contest between keyboards vs. index dominance in writing machines was won by 1910; typewriters were standardized with keyboards, designed to be used on desks. A testimony to technology, 36 years later, ENIAC, the first binary computer, was born, using punch cards “read” by teletype, necessitating the computer-keyboard marriage. Look down at your computer attached to a keyboard: now you know how that marriage occurred.
On the heels of the early adoption of keyboards for computing, typewriter inventors turned to a hybrid of index and keyboard technology to maintain a market share: the 1961 Selectric was born, using a manual, electrified keyboard, with an interchangeable index ball. Changing fonts was as easy as changing balls. Selectrics in colors such as burnt red, Pepto-Bismol pink, and moss green, were about to be eclipsed by the PC, operated by the 19th century QWERTY keyboard.
The keyboard, a vestige of an age when manual finger pressure controlled for uniformity, is as fated for oblivion as was the Selectric. Alternatives to keyboards have presented throughout the history of the printed word: the AI of the future may not include the QWERTY keyboard, a reminder of a machine-to-human-musculature meld. Is the next frontier for mechanically produced words a mind-machine meld?
The typewriter, named beautifully in Italian in 1808 as the “scribe-harpsichord,” enabled eyes to see the page via struck keys. Keyboards may be going the way of the harpsichord. The value of this wonderful machine? $1,000 and rising….
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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