A Brief History of the Typewriter

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Petegar/iStock via Getty Images / Petegar/iStock via Getty Images

A new episode of Mad Men or a rare airing of Murder, She Wrote isn’t the only time to stare longingly at a beautiful, sleek typewriter. There are 28 (sometimes 29) days every year dedicated to the once ubiquitous, now ancient device: February is International Typewriter Appreciation Month.

When it became technologically possible to turn the long-standing idea for a writing machine into a reality, prototypes were abundant. But it wasn’t until 1867 that Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee invented the first typewriter, later sold and turned into the successful Remington typewriter. An improved prototype by Sholes still sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. After its creation, Sholes continued to modify and improve his product, but it took years and careful strategy for him and others to find a market. No one knew who would want to use mechanical writing, and whether the public could be convinced that it was faster than writing by hand. (A sluggish economy in the 1870s was partially to blame for the slow beginnings.) Finally, in the 1880s—right before the Progressive Era began—industrialization helped the product find an audience in need: specialized employees who were used for correspondence and keeping accounts began to rely on the technology to efficiently do their jobs.

Up until the 1930s, the typewriter wasn’t a very vibrant piece of machinery to look at. It was your typical, durable typewriter in black enamel paint.

The Hansen Writing Ball required typists to hover over the keyboard and peck the letters onto the paper that is stretched on an arched frame below. The first commercially produced typewriter, this machine was invented in 1865 by Danish minister and teacher Rasmus Malling-Hansen.

Typewriters were eventually streamlined and offered in color to appeal to a wider audience—homeowners and secretaries who wanted something a little less oppressive looking. They've come a long way.

Royal produced the Signet from 1932 until 1933 and promoted it as a low-cost alternative for “children, housewives and letter writers.” Without a shift key, it’s a caps-only device equipped with a sans-serif italic font meant for easy reading. Even though it was extremely popular, production on the Signet ceased in under a year because dealers weren’t making a large profit from the low-cost item.

Remington’s Monarch was the revised effort of its Remie Scout family of typewriters, using much of the same basic designs but tweaking it slightly. In this yellow, refurbished model, users still had to push the carriage to the right and manually advance the paper one line.

Around 1959, the Smith-Corona brand began exploring color and introduced white keys to their products. The Sterling, with its “Super 5” body style, lasted only a few years after its unveiling, but capped the end of an era for Smith-Corona before they began producing more modern-looking machines.

The fan reaction to the Olympia brand and the Smith-Corona brand has been compared with that of Coke versus Pepsi people. Classified as a medium-size typewriter, Olympia's SM4 differs from the rest of the brand because of keys on either side of the spacebar used for tabbing and clearing tabs.

A blood-red Olivetti specimen, named the "Valentine," was designed more for aesthetics than for practical reasons. In the 1960s, it was meant as an escape from the office, but failed to meet sales expectations because of its mediocre output. Regardless, it's a design classic. The machine's designer, Ettore Sottsass, said the Valentine "was invented for use any place except in an office, as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly coloured object on a table in a studio apartment." Sottsass knew how to give some personality to an ordinary piece of office equipment.

The Olivetti Studio 45 came about during a buy-out when Olivetti was taking over the Underwood brand. Underwood actually had a similar version called the Oliver 450, but the Olivetti version had the creative backing from Sottsass, the Valentine's designer.