Wednesday June 23, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Typewriter

On this Day:

In 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes patented the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, the first commercially successful of its kind.  However, any claim that he invented the typewriter would have to be, ah.., corrected. Seems there have been many carbon-copy-cats..

A typewriter is a mechanical or electromechanical machine for typing characters. Typically, a typewriter has an array of keys, and each one causes a different single character to be produced on paper by striking an inked ribbon selectively against the paper with a type element. At the end of the nineteenth century, the term ‘typewriter’ was also applied to a person who used a typing machine.

The first commercial typewriters were introduced in 1874, but did not become common in offices until after the mid-1880s. The typewriter quickly became an indispensable tool for practically all writing other than personal handwritten correspondence. It was widely used by professional writers, in offices, business correspondence in private homes, and by students preparing written assignments.

Typewriters were a standard fixture in most offices up to the 1980s. Thereafter, they began to be largely supplanted by computers. Nevertheless, typewriters remain common in some parts of the world. In many Indian cities and towns, for example, typewriters are still used, especially in roadside and legal offices due to a lack of continuous, reliable electricity. The QWERTY keyboard layout, developed for typewriters, remains the standard for computer keyboards.

Notable typewriter manufacturers included E. Remington and Sons, IBM, Godrej, Imperial Typewriter Company, Oliver Typewriter Company, Olivetti, Royal Typewriter Company, Smith Corona, Underwood Typewriter Company, Adler Typewriter Company and Olympia Werke.

Although many modern typewriters have one of several similar designs, their invention was incremental, developed by numerous inventors working independently or in competition with each other over a series of decades. As with the automobile, telephone, and telegraph, a number of people contributed insights and inventions that eventually resulted in ever more commercially successful instruments. Historians have estimated that some form of typewriter was invented 52 times as thinkers tried to come up with a workable design.

Some early typing instruments include:

  • Typewriter “Adler”, owned by Dimitar Peshev.
  • In 1575, an Italian printmaker, Francesco Rampazetto, invented the scrittura tattile, a machine to impress letters in papers.
  • In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a patent in Britain for a machine that, from the patent, appears to have been similar to a typewriter. The patent shows that this machine was actually created: “[he] hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and public records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery.”
  • In 1802, Italian Agostino Fantoni developed a particular typewriter to enable his blind sister to write.
  • Between 1801 and 1808, Italian Pellegrino Turri invented a typewriter for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano.
  • In 1823, Italian Pietro Conti da Cilavegna invented a new model of typewriter, the tachigrafo, also known as tachitipo.
  • In 1829, American William Austin Burt patented a machine called the “Typographer” which, in common with many other early machines, is listed as the “first typewriter”. The London Science Museum describes it merely as “the first writing mechanism whose invention was documented”, but even that claim may be excessive, since Turri’s invention pre-dates it. Even in the hands of its inventor, this machine was slower than handwriting. Burt and his promoter John D. Sheldon never found a buyer for the patent, so the invention was never commercially produced. Because the typographer used a dial, rather than keys, to select each character, it was called an “index typewriter” rather than a “keyboard typewriter”. Index typewriters of that era resemble the squeeze-style embosser from the 1960s more than they resemble the modern keyboard typewriter.
  • Giuseppe Ravizza, a prolific typewriter inventor, born in Italy in 1811 (died 1885), spent nearly 40 years of his life obsessively grappling with the complexities of inventing a usable writing machine. He called his invention Cembalo scrivano o “macchina da scrivere a tasti” because of its piano-type keys and keyboard. The story of the 16 models he produced between 1847 and the early 1880s is described in The Writing Machine and illustrated from Ravizza’s 1855 patent, which bears similarities to the later upstroke design of the Sholes and and Glidden typewriter.

By the mid-19th century, the increasing pace of business communication had created a need for mechanization of the writing process. Stenographers and telegraphers could take down information at rates up to 130 words per minute, whereas a writer with a pen was limited to a maximum of 30 words per minute (the 1853 speed record).

From 1829 to 1870, many printing or typing machines were patented by inventors in Europe and America, but none went into commercial production.

American Charles Thurber developed multiple patents, of which his first in 1843 was developed as an aid to the blind, such as the 1845 Chirographer.

In 1855, the Italian Giuseppe Ravizza created a prototype typewriter called Cembalo scrivano o macchina da scrivere a tasti (“Scribe harpsichord, or machine for writing with keys”). It was an advanced machine that let the user see the writing as it was typed.

In 1861, Father Francisco João de Azevedo, a Brazilian priest, made his own typewriter with basic materials and tools, such as wood and knives. In that same year the Brazilian emperor D. Pedro II, presented a gold medal to Father Azevedo for this invention. Many Brazilian people as well as the Brazilian federal government recognize Fr. Azevedo was the inventor of the typewriter, a claim that has been the subject of some controversy.

In 1865, John Jonathon Pratt, of Centre, Alabama (US), built a machine called the Pterotype which appeared in an 1867 Scientific American article and inspired other inventors.

Between 1864 and 1867, Peter Mitterhofer, a carpenter from South Tyrol (then part of Austria) developed several models and a fully functioning prototype typewriter in 1867.

In 1865, Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen of Denmark invented the Hansen Writing Ball, which went into commercial production in 1870 and was the first commercially sold typewriter. It was a success in Europe and was reported as being used in offices on the European continent as late as 1909. Malling-Hansen used a solenoid escapement to return the carriage on some of his models which makes him a candidate for the title of inventor of the first “electric” typewriter.

According to the book “Hvem er skrivekuglens opfinder?”, written by Malling-Hansen’s daughter, Johanne Agerskov, in 1865, Malling-Hansen made a porcelain model of the keyboard of his writing ball and experimented with different placements of the letters to achieve the fastest writing speed. Malling-Hansen placed the letters on short pistons that went directly through the ball and down to the paper. This, together with the placement of the letters so that the fastest writing fingers struck the most frequently used letters, made the Hansen Writing Ball the first typewriter to produce text substantially faster than a person could write by hand.

The Hansen Writing Ball was produced with only upper-case characters. The Writing Ball was used as a template for inventor Frank Haven Hall to create a derivative that would produce letter prints cheaper and faster.

Malling-Hansen developed his typewriter further through the 1870s and 1880s and made many improvements, but the writing head remained the same. On the first model of the writing ball from 1870, the paper was attached to a cylinder inside a wooden box. In 1874, the cylinder was replaced by a carriage, moving beneath the writing head. Then, in 1875, the well-known “tall model” was patented, which was the first of the writing balls that worked without electricity. Malling-Hansen attended the world exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and Paris in 1878 and he received the first-prize for his invention at both exhibitions.

By about 1910, the “manual” or “mechanical” typewriter had reached a somewhat standardized design. There were minor variations from one manufacturer to another, but most typewriters followed the concept that each key was attached to a typebar that had the corresponding letter molded, in reverse, into its striking head. When a key was struck briskly and firmly, the typebar hit a ribbon (usually made of inked fabric), making a printed mark on the paper wrapped around a cylindrical platen.

The platen was mounted on a carriage that moved horizontally to the left, automatically advancing the typing position, after each character was typed. The carriage-return lever at the far left was then pressed to the right to return the carriage to its starting position and rotate the platen to advance the paper vertically. A small bell was struck a few characters before the right hand margin was reached to warn the operator to complete the word and then use the carriage-return lever. Typewriters for languages written right-to-left operate in the opposite direction.

Although electric typewriters would not achieve widespread popularity until nearly a century later, the basic groundwork for the electric typewriter was laid by the Universal Stock Ticker, invented by Thomas Edison in 1870. This device remotely printed letters and numbers on a stream of paper tape from input generated by a specially designed typewriter at the other end of a telegraph line (per Wikipedia).

Then there is the whole story behind the development of the IBM Selectric Typewriter, but that is a tale to be typed out another day…

First, a Story:

How did the typewriter know it was pregnant?  It skipped a period…

Second, a Song:

Today, we return to Leroy Anderson, who wrote The Typewriter song.

Leroy Anderson (June 29, 1908 – May 18, 1975) was an American composer of short, light concert pieces, of which many were introduced by the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler. John Williams described him as “one of the great American masters of light orchestral music.”

Anderson completed “The Typewriter” on October 9, 1950 in Woodbury, Connecticut. “The Typewriter” received its first performance on September 8, 1953 during a recording Anderson and the Boston Pops Orchestra made in New York City for Decca Records. Anderson composed the melody for symphony and pops orchestras; William Zinn and Floyd Werle arranged it for string orchestras and wind bands respectively.

Its name refers to the fact that its performance requires a typewriter, while using three basic typewriter sounds: the sound of typing, the “ring” of the carriage return indicating an approaching end-of-line (a standard desk bell is used for it), and the sound of the typewriter’s carriage returning. In some cases the sound of the typewriter’s carriage returning is made by a musical gourd, flute, string or other instrument.

The typewriter was modified so that only two keys work to prevent the keys from jamming. According to the composer himself, as well as other musicians, the typewriter part is difficult because of how fast the typing speed is: even professional stenographers cannot do it, and only professional drummers have the necessary wrist flexibility.

It has been called one of “the wittiest and most clever pieces in the orchestral repertoire”. Author Steve Metcalf has written that “Despite the almost total disappearance of typewriters in everyday life, the statistics show that “The Typewriter” is still a favorite Anderson item.”

The typewriter is considered a percussion instrument, and the typewriter part is usually performed by a percussionist or drummer, or rarely by the conductor.

The Brandenburger Symphoniker is a symphonic orchestra in Brandenburg an der Havel. Its home venue is the CulturCongressCentrum there. It is affiliated to the Brandenburger Theater.

It was founded in 1810 by high-ranking Prussian military musicians from the fusiliers and grenadiers regiments. From 1866, the successful music ensemble called itself the Orchestra of the Brandenburg Theatre. After the German reunification the orchestra got the name “Brandenburger Symphoniker”.

As the oldest existing orchestra it belongs to the outstanding cultural institutions of the Brandenburg Land. The orchestra is not only active as a symphony orchestra, but also in opera performances and for several years has been playing in productions for the Kammeroper Schloss Rheinsberg festival. The Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra regularly performs in Berlin (Konzerthaus Berlin, Berliner Philharmonie), Potsdam (Nikolaisaal), Frankfurt (Oder) (concert hall) and other cities in the Land of Brandenburg, but also gives guest performances throughout Germany and abroad. Guest performances have taken the orchestra through Europe, to the US, Japan, South Africa and China. The Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra is a regular guest at the Festival MúsicaMallorca in Palma (per Wikipedia).

So here is Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Song performed by the Brandenburger Symphoniker.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I still had a daughter who I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” – J. K. Rowling


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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