QWERTY is typewriter’s claim to fame

QWERTY is typewriter's claim to fame by Bob Karolevitz This column was written on a typewriter, not a computer.

They tell me that typewriters are almost obsolete, like buggy whips and button hooks, but I'm hanging in there with my old Smith-Corona regardless of the so-called conventional wisdom.

Actually it's a slow week, so I thought you'd be interested in a bit of history about the experimenters who were trying to replace the pencil and pen as far back as 1714. That's when Queen Anne of England granted a patent to Henry Mill, an engineer, for a machine for engrossing letters on paper or parchment "so Neat and Exact as not to be distinguished from Print."

I don't know what happened to Mill's efforts, but in America William Austin Burt of Detroit introduced his box-like "typographer" in 1829 after receiving the first U.S. patent for such a device. Numerous other attempts to produce a practical machine followed (several were almost as big as pianos), but it wasn't until after the Civil War that success was finally achieved � in Wisconsin.

Christopher Latham Sholes, a former printer's apprentice and later editor of the Daily Sentinel in Milwaukee, had an inventive mind and became obsessed with the idea of creating a mechanical writer. By 1868 with the help of Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule, he produced a crude but workable "typewriter" on which he wrote a letter to James Densmore, previously his partner on the Kenosha Telegraph. Densmore liked what he saw and promptly bought an interest in the machine sight unseen.

Densmore eventually acquired Shole's rights to the invention for $12,000; and in 1873 he and another investor � George W.N. Yost � met up with Philo Remington, president of E. Remington & Sons of Ilion, NY, then the manufacturer of guns, sewing machines and agricultural equipment.

The demand for guns had dropped off with the end of the war, and Remington was looking for something else to make. On March 1, 1873, the three men signed a contract for the company to produce 1,000 typewriters.

Two of Remington's best mechanics were assigned to redesign Shole's invention to make it more suitable for quantity production. However, because the firm was in the sewing machine business, those first typewriters looked a lot like sewing machines with a foot treadle carriage return.

The keyboard created a special problem. Arranging the letters in alphabetical order didn't work because it made the frequently used characters difficult to reach. It is said that today's keyboard (the same one used on computers) was the brain child of Remington engineers in 1874.

To encourage salesmen to show off their machine to prospective buyers by typing the word "typewriter" very quickly, all the letters for that word were put in the same row. That's how the QWERTY keyboard was supposedly designed.

Remington was one of some 90 manufacturers which produced and sold writing machines during the next several decades. Trade names like Atlas, Hall, Blickenderfer, Crandall, Century, Darling, Emerson, Smith-Premier, Oliver, Triumph, Underwood, Royal, Woodstock, Yost and others followed the first commercial model.

Those of us who have not yet succumbed to the lure of the computer are probably a dying breed, though. But until they change the keyboard, we've still got QWERTY as our claim to historic fame.

© 1999 Robert F. Karolevitz

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