Developer of the Typewriter
Sholes was born on February 14, 1819, near Mooresburg, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his early years. He received a general education but no formal higher schooling, after which he apprenticed to a printer for four years.
Sholes moved with his parents to the newly established territory of Wisconsin and became editor of Madison’s newspaper, the Wisconsin Enquirer. He later tried his hand at politics, serving in Wisconsin’s legislature.
In the early 1860s Sholes edited two Milwaukee, Wisconsin, newspapers but was soon appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to the position of Milwaukee’s port collector.
The new job demanded less of Sholes’s time, and he began to explore his creative and mechanical talents. He and his friend Samuel Soulé obtained a patent for a pagenumbering device in 1864. Referring him to publications about earlier attempts to devise mechanical writing machines, inventor Carlos Glidden encouraged Sholes to transform his machine so that it could print letters.
The first documented typing machine had appeared in 1829 when William Butt of Detroit, Michigan, obtained a patent for a device called a typographer. A rotating semicircular frame held the type mount, and levers depressed the frame onto paper. The result was slower than writing by hand, and the machine was barely used.
In 1868 Sholes, Soulé, and Glidden were granted a patent for a typewriter that embodied the basic mechanics of Burt’s machine, but was much improved. With practice, it could produce documents at least as fast as a person could write.
After making further technical improvements, Sholes sold the patent rights in 1873 to the Remington Arms Company; a gun manufacturer with the necessary equipment, skilled labor force, and capital to build and market the machine. The first Remington Typewriter, a large, heavy model, sold for about $125, a high price that prevented its immediate commercial success.
Sholes was involved in improving the typewriter until his death on February 17, 1890, in Milwaukee.
Christopher Sholes’s Legacy
Sholes’s development of the typewriter increased the efficiency of many communications and helped transform business practices from manual to machine oriented.
Before becoming popularly accepted, the typewriter had to overcome several challenges. Because of the cost of the original Remington machine, the company sold only 1,200 of the 25,000 models it built. Writers were wary because it was difficult to master the typing procedure, partly because the writer could not immediately view the typed material (in early models). Physicians accused the typewriter of causing consumption and schizophrenia in frequent users.
The typewriter, once its merits had been recognized and its mechanics improved (by the turn of the nineteenth century), offered advantages over writing by hand. It allowed people to create typed letters, stories, and official documents more quickly and legibly, with more precision, and in a standardized manner.
The typewriter was part of a twentiethcentury revolution in business practices. Along with various desktop instruments, such as dictating machines, adding machines, cash registers, and duplicating machines, the typewriter made the clerking profession vanish. Clerks, usually young men without the means for a formal education, had been essential to commerce and industry; they kept beautifully handwritten records of a company’s entire operation. The advent of the typewriter also likely heralded a declining interest in the art of calligraphy.
The typewriter was improved throughout the century. In 1901 the first electric typewriter appeared, although mechanical machines dominated the popular market until the 1970s. By the 1980s typewriters were becoming archaic, as computers and computerized instruments replaced most desktop business machines.
Christopher Sholes – 1819-1890