1 July 1874: the first commercial typewriter goes on sale

On 1 July, 1874, the world’s first commercially successful typewriter, the “Sholes & Glidden Type Writer”, went on sale.

Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden had started developing their typewriter in 1867 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1873, after many iterations and improvements, Sholes signed a contract with gunsmiths E Remington & Sons to manufacture the device.

The machine was unreliable and, at $125 apiece, expensive. It also had some major design flaws. It was a ‘blind-writer’ – you couldn’t see what you were actually typing. And it could only type in CAPITAL LETTERS (though we suspect that didn’t carry the same connotation of shouting that it does today). On top of all that, it was mounted on a sewing-machine table, and the carriage return was operated by means of a treadle.

But nevertheless, about 5,000 were sold. The key benefit of the typewriter was that it allowed the operator to type more rapidly – and clearly – than a person could write by hand, and it wasn’t too long before the original was superseded. In 1878, the Remington no 2 was released, by which time a shifting mechanism had been perfected which allowed both upper and lower-case letters to be produced.

Typewriter advert © US Library of CongressRemington enjoyed a monopoly in the typewriter market until 1881, when the American Writing Machine Company started marketing its own machine. Remington went on to sell its typewriter division, and the right to use the Remington name, to the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company in 1886, which became office equipment maker Remington Rand. In the mid-1950s, this was acquired by the Sperry Corporation.

Typewriters became an office staple for the next hundred years or so, right up until computers became commonplace, and word-processing software and printers replaced them.

Typewriters had several economic impacts, but one of the biggest was on the employment of women. The original typewriter was aimed firmly at female workers, as this advert from 1875 shows:

“Mere girls are now earning from $10 to $20 per week with the ‘Type-Writer’, and we can at once secure good situations for one hundred expert writers on it in counting rooms in this city.”

By 1900, there were around 200,000 women stenographers and typists in the US workforce, and by 1930 there were over two million.

However, since the advent of computers and the use of voice recognition and other software, the role of the typist is dying out. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of typists and word-processor operators fell by 54% between 2002 and 2012.

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