On the wall above the desk where my computer sits is a beautiful painting of an old typewriter. It hangs there I suppose because it makes a sort of sense in this space where fingers fly across the more modern QWERTY keyboard composing e-mails and blog posts and the next great American novel. But when I reflect on the story of how the typewriter came to be, I think there’s more to it than that.
In July of 1867 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, mechanic Carlos Glidden passed on a Scientific American article to his friend, printer Christopher Latham Sholes. The article detailed a recently invented writing machine called the pterotype. Sholes and a partner had recently been somewhat successful designing a number printing machine and when he looked at the device his friend showed him, Sholes thought he might just be able to do better.
He quickly set to work and soon used a converted telegraph key to type the letter “W.” Excited about their initial success Sholes and Glidden had a model with a full alphabet and some punctuation by September of 1867. The only thing left to do was to get the machine to market, which was a long and frustrating experience during which Sholes remarked on several occasions that he wouldn’t recommend the no-good invention to anyone anyway.
Finally in 1873, after receiving an intriguing typewritten query letter, sewing machine and firearms manufacturer E. Remington and Sons asked for a demonstration at their New York headquarters. Seeing what the machine could do, they wasted no time in manufacturing a thousand of them, and optioned 24 thousand more.
Initially the Remington typewriter wasn’t a commercial success. Despite the claim that a skilled person could produce 57 words per minute, and a stamp of semi-approval from Mark Twain who had a love/hate relationship with one of the earliest models, the machine cost a whopping $125. The trouble was that at that price, the typewriter cost significantly more than a pen, which came with significantly fewer glitches.
It would take a number of revisions to the initial design, a more reasonable price tag, and the help of a good marketing plan to lead to the typewriter’s eventual success. Sholes, who gained little fortune from his invention, plugged away at improvements for the rest of his life, never really satisfied that he’d gotten it exactly right.
Near the end of his life, however, he had this to say: “Whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter…I am glad I had something to do with it. I built it wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it.”
So a beautiful painting of an old typewriter hangs above my computer because when I sit down at the keyboard, I want to reflect that when my project is at long last complete, and has come out perhaps even wiser than I knew, I will be glad to have been a part of it. And I want to be reminded that in addition to inspiration, great ideas take time and hard work, and often a lot of revision. An intriguing query letter and killer marketing plan won’t hurt either.
Note: I originally wrote this article over a year ago for Saturday Writers of St. Charles County, Missouri, but thought on this 148th anniversary of the original patent for the Sholes typewriter, I would share it in this space. As a writer, I am grateful for the invention of the typewriter. I am even more grateful that I don’t have to use one.