Writing Instruments I Have Known

It’s funny how the anniversaries of certain historic events make you reminisce. Today, I’ve been reminiscing about the typewriter, a writing instrument with which I’m almost as familiar as I am a pencil or pen. On this date in 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes patented a typewriting machine, a giant leap forward for his time.

Inventors had been working to develop a typewriter since as early as 1714 (Henry Mill) and then to “reinvent” it, making it something practical and useful. Sholes was successful in developing one of the first commercially successful such machines.

Sholes was a newspaper editor in Milwaukee. His newspaper’s compositors went on strike, prompting Sholes to try (unsuccessfully) to build a machine that would set type. He and printer Samuel Soule later were working together to develop a ticket-numbering machine when lawyer and inventor Carlos Glidden suggested that they might be able to make a machine that produced not only numbers but also letters. They began with a machine called a Pterotype, developed by John Pratt, and tried to simplify it. The result was the typewriting machine, which is shown to the right of Pratt’s machine.

The men received a patent for their invention on June 23, 1868. Their machine sold for an average of about $250 each, not a paltry sum in those days. Remington, a company better known for its firearms, bought the patent in 1873. The inventors continued, however, to improve on their original design, the most lasting improvement being the QWERTY keyboard arrangement to reduce jamming of the keys, and the arrangement is still in use today (although with computers it is no longer necessary).

The first typewriter that I worked on wasn’t quite as old as Sholes’s machine, but it was old. It was my mother’s Remington portable with a small suitcase-sized carrying case and a ribbon that allowed one to type in either black or red ink. I used that machine before I even took a typing class; I used the hunt-and-peck technique instead.

Then I took typing in high school. (My “wise” guidance counselor tried to convince me that I wouldn’t need to know how to type for college, but my father convinced him otherwise!) We learned on heavy Smith-Corona manual machines that required a heavy hand. To this day, I still pound the keyboard although it’s no longer necessary. (I guess I just enjoy both the feeling of strength it gives me and the sound of the keys being struck. It makes me feel as though I’m actually accomplishing something.)

I enjoyed the typing class so much that my parents bought me a refurbished but very functional Royal typewriter for Christmas that year. I took that machine to college with me and used the carbon paper, erasable bond paper, and hair spray to bond the ink to the erasable bond so it wouldn’t smear when the professors read my papers. I used that machine not only throughout college and grad school but also during much of my teaching career–typing mimeograph and ditto stencils–until I decided (foolishly, I now realize) that I needed an electric machine to be successful as a writer.

The electric machine that I bought was a Brother Correct-O-Ball, which had a golf ball-sized ball in the center where the letters used to be on long, curved arms. The ball would spin around to the letter that corresponded to the key one struck. The idea was that the keys would not get jammed when one typed too fast. I liked that idea because my writing was slowed every time I had to untangle the keys, and that happened often to me. The only problem was that I was so enthralled by watching that ball spin around that I ended up watching the ball rather than writing. And before I knew it, it became hard–and expensive–to get the ribbon cartridges for the machine. I decided I needed to upgrade.

A friend told me that the wave of the future was in word processors, so I bought a used Magnavox Video Writer word processor. It had an ugly yellow-on-black screen display about the size of the modern iPad screen. It also had a neat feature whereby when you began to type a word, the machine guessed what you meant and completed the word for you. When I began one day to type one of my daughter’s names–Tisha–the machine changed it to Tissue. For a while, that feature provided some interesting entertainment, but eventually it became frustrating because I had to proofread even more closely, and that slowed me down. For all the hype about speeding up my production, I found that I was wasting even more time.

Then I pursued a full computer, something that I could use for multiple functions, not just word processing. That’s when I bought and paid for the Tandy computer–and then the franchise went bankrupt before they could deliver it. Then they refused to deliver it. I was called as a witness in the resulting bankruptcy proceedings. When the franchisee lost, I won my computer, but by then I had bought another (a Gateway desktop). I didn’t need and couldn’t afford two computers, so I had to sell the Tandy at a loss.

More recently, I joined the laptop trend. I’ve had Gateways, Toshibas, and now an HP Pavilion. And I’ve suffered through crashes of hard drives, obsolescence of the 5 1/4- and 3-1/2-inch floppy disks, and constantly required upgrades to software and hardware. While this rapidly changing technology has had its advantages, I still look back upon the days of the old manual typewriter with fond memories.


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