Christopher Sholes: Biography & Inventions

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

Christopher Sholes was a 19th-century American inventor who spent a number of years working for newspapers before obtaining a patent for the typewriter. In this lesson, you will learn about his life and inventions.

Out of Order

Have you ever looked at your keyboard and wondered why the keys are in such a particularly odd order? Have you thought it would make more sense for them to be alphabetical?

In the 19th century, an inventor named Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter, which would revolutionize the printing industry. He later improved on his invention by adding a QWERTY keyboard, which would make the machine even easier to use.

Let's take a look at Sholes's life and inventions.

Sholes's Early Life

1830s printing press
1830s Printing Press

Christopher Sholes was born in Pennsylvania in 1819. He eventually apprenticed as a printer, which means he learned the trade from its earliest steps under a master printer. At that time, printing consisted of hand-arranging letter blocks in a frame, applying ink, and turning a crank to press the paper and frame together.

In 1837, Sholes moved to Wisconsin, where his brothers had started printing a newspaper. His education continued and he worked his way up to become editor of newspapers in Madison, the capital, and Milwaukee. Sholes also became involved in politics. He served in the Wisconsin state legislature and eventually received an appointment from President Abraham Lincoln to serve as the collector of the port of Milwaukee around 1860.

The Inventor

Sholes had spent much of his life dabbling in inventing, but his job as the port collector gave him more time to become more serious about his projects. In 1864, he was able to secure his first patent, which is a government license that grants the holder all rights to an invention. He had partnered with Samuel Soule to create a page-numbering machine.

Then, fellow inventor Carlos Glidden noted that if it can print numbers, why not letters?

Christopher Sholes with his invention
christopher sholes

The Typewriter

The three men worked together to develop plans for the new machine, and four years later had enough detail to their design to receive the patent for a typewriter. At a time when people wrote by hand or made the financial investment in using a printing press, the typewriter's speed amazed people.

They advertised that it could help a person write 57 words per minute, which motivated Mark Twain to buy one. He became the first author to use a typewriter to write a novel.

Lillian Sholes, daughter of Christopher Sholes, using a typewriter.
Lillian Sholes using the Typewriter

Sholes, Soule, and Glidden obtained additional patents for developments to their original machine, but people did not respond as they had hoped. The typewriter was priced at $125, but many workers only made around $1 for a day of work, so it wasn't very affordable.

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