History of the Typewriter

No one knows what the earliest models looked like. The earliest extant machine, Hansen’s “writing ball” (1870), looks likes a pincushion on a stand. Friedrich Nietzsche’s mother and sister gave him one of these for Christmas. According to typewriter historian Richard Polt, Nietzsche hated it.

Ingenious by design

Typewriters would change shape over the years. Competing companies produced over a dozen entirely different types, ranging from Remington’s “understroke” (1873) to Crandall’s “single type-element” (1884) and Hammond’s ingenious “varityper” (1884). By the early 20th century the most popular typewriters were Underwood’s No. 1 “overstroke” (1895) — and these were also the first models to employ the QWERTY keyboard layout. This layout slowed typists, preventing the type bars from jamming.

Introducing the amazing fingerwriter!

The typewriter is a fairly simple mechanism. Yet, despite its simplicity, how many people know how one works, much less the mechanisms that keep those keys slapping and the reels rolling?

If one looked up “typewriter” in a dictionary, the entry might read: “hand-operated character printer for printing written messages one character at a time.” In other words, if you want a document, a typewriter allows you to write and print that document simultaneously. It’s essentially a finger-engined machine, but it’s called a typewriter, not a finger-writer. That’s because it allows you to write on the page with pieces of type — slugs of metal with raised, molded letters that leave exact, printed marks on the paper. The letters are molded on the slugs in reverse, so that they print type on the page correctly.

So how does this strange, finger-engined artifact work? Simple. First, you press a lettered-key. The attached lever swings another lever, the type bar, toward the page. As the type bar’s molded type strikes the page, a spool of inked cloth lifts between the type and paper, inking the selected letter on the page. On releasing the lettered-key, a spring pulls the type bar back. Then the carriage holding the paper moves one space to the left, ensuring that the next key you hit doesn’t obliterate the previous mark. On reaching the paper’s right margin, a bell sounds. You push the carriage return lever, which spins the paper up and moves the carriage back to start the next line.

One out of many

Technically speaking, typewriters are compound machines, as several simple machines comprise them. Each model worked somewhat differently, but the basics are similar enough. Of the six simple machines (inclined planes, wedges, levers, pulleys, screws and wheels) typewriters use them all.

Where to start? Well, when thinking of typewriters, levers come to mind, naturally. Typewriters rely on levers, several in fact (i.e. type bar, type lever, carriage return lever, carriage release lever etc.) all working in tandem. Next, after the lever, come the pulley and also the wheel. For instance, the ink-ribbon stretching between the two spools function as both wheel and pulley.

Another machine is the paper itself, which acts as a wedge, shifting upward between the platen and paper bail. Also, consider how paper enters the typewriter. The paper feed acts as an inclined plane. Beyond the screws holding the entire contraption together, another integral screw is actually a gear, the worm gear, which turns the platen when the carriage return lever is engaged. These examples, far from comprehensive, merely serve as illustrations of the typewriter’s ingenuity.

Simple design

By comparison, clocks are far more complex. Despite this fact, after the clock’s invention another 400 years elapsed before the first typewriter appeared. Literacy levels were still quite low; therefore the need was absent. What’s more, the cost of producing machinery was also quite high. Not until the industrial revolution did something as simple and vital to modern communication as the typewriter become viable. The typewriter is now an artifact, emblematic of the pre-computer age. Only a nostalgic few still compose on them.

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