Happy Birthday to the Typewriter

From The Writer’s Almanac, June 23, 2015:

“The typewriter was patented on this date in 1868, by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sholes was a newspaperman, and he was driven to invention out of necessity: His printers went on strike. He and two colleagues set out to invent a machine to print letters on paper. There had been attempts to make typewriters before, but they weren’t very practical — it took longer to type a letter than to write it by hand, and the devices were viewed as novelties for rich and bored people. Sholes and his collaborators didn’t bother to look at what the other inventors had tried before them, so they repeated a lot of the same mistakes.

The QWERTY keyboard evolved hand in hand with the typewriter. At first glance, it looks like the arrangement of the letters is arbitrary, and it would seem logical to just put them in alphabetical order. That’s what Sholes did originally, but the way his typebars were set up, some letters that were often used together in words ended up with their bars close together as well. The trouble was that an experienced typist would get going so fast that the typebars of those letters would get jammed and have to be unstuck. Sholes rearranged the keys so that there was more space between the frequently paired letters.

Ernest Hemingway loved his Royal typewriter. He kept it in his bedroom so it would never be too far away, and he put it on top of a bookshelf and wrote standing up.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote on a red IBM Selectric. One of his first jobs was as a copy boy for Time, and while he was supposed to be working, he used a typewriter and typed out, word for word, all of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, in order to learn something about writing style.

Jack Kerouac was a fast typist, and it frustrated him to have to change the paper so often. So he took long sheets of drawing paper, trimmed them to fit in the machine, and wrote all of On the Road that way. When he taped them together at the end, the manuscript was 120 feet long.”


The Writer’s Almanac is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented daily by American Public Media.  To view the entire entry for June 23, go to http://writersalmanac.org/page/6/

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