Typewriters: History & Types

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  • 0:02 What Is a Typewriter?
  • 0:53 History
  • 3:18 Different Types
  • 6:32 Basic Typewriter Use
  • 7:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Zandbergen

Paul has a PhD from the University of British Columbia and has taught Geographic Information Systems, statistics and computer programming for 15 years.

A typewriter is a mechanical device to produce printed characters on a piece of paper by typing individual keys. Many of the developments in typewriter design have left their legacy on present data input techniques in computer systems.

What Is a Typewriter

Consider for a moment your life without a computer. For a college course, you need to write a 3,000-word essay. Doing background research requires going to the library and looking up some books or articles on the shelves. You take notes by writing them down on a notepad. Once you have your notes organized you need to sit down and actually write the paper. How? Using a typewriter.

A typewriter is a mechanical device to produce printed characters on a piece of paper by typing individual keys. If you've grown up in the computer age you may never have seen a typewriter, let alone used one. Yet, 30 years ago they were everywhere. They were as ubiquitous as, well, computers are today - one for every desk. While typewriters are no longer in widespread use, much of today's keyboard functionality is derived from typewriters.


In the mid-19th century, business communications were increasing at a rapid pace and created the need for the mechanization of the writing process. Quite a number of different designs were developed and tested by various inventors. By 1873, the first commercially successful typewriter was introduced: the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. This device is also the origin of the term typewriter.

The basic mechanical typewriter became relatively standardized. Each key was attached to a typebar with the corresponding letter molded into its head (in reverse). By firmly striking a key, a typebar was brought into motion in order for the head to hit a ribbon, making a printed mark on a piece of paper. The paper was rolled around a cylinder, and this cylinder was mounted on a carriage. With every keystroke the carriage would advance horizontally to the next character on the same line. A carriage-return lever was used to move the carriage all the way back to the beginning of the line and roll up the paper one line vertically.

One important innovation was the use of a shift key, which made it possible to use one of two characters on a single typebar. For letters, these logically represented lower and uppercase versions of the same letter. For other characters, it simply created more options for special symbols.

If any of these terms sound familiar - even if you have never used a typewriter - that should not come as a great surprise. Just look at your computer keyboard. There is an enter or return key, which is just like the original carriage-return lever. There is the shift key, which works just like its mechanical equivalent. Modern computer keyboards have a lot in common with the old-fashioned typewriter.

There is another very important legacy of typewriter design on modern computers. Read the first six letters on your keyboard from the top-left. They read QWERTY. This is the exact same layout of keys used in the very first commercial typewriter back in 1873. Why this particular sequence? In testing different designs, it was discovered that users could type faster than the mechanical typebars could move back and forth, resulting in jams when the typebars got entangled. By analyzing common character sequences, a keyboard layout was developed that slowed down users, so they could type at a steady pace without jamming the typebars.

Different Types

The early typewriters were completely mechanical. Every moving part was mechanical, moved either by a typist or a built-in mechanism using levers and springs. These typewriters were also quite noisy. Keys had to be struck quite firmly and made a significant noise when striking the metal cylinder around which the paper was rolled. Consider a skilled typist banging away at a single typewriter at a brisk pace of several hundred characters per minute. Add a bell every time the end of a line is reached and the rattling noise of the carriage being moved back to the beginning. Now image a room full of them, typing away at their desks… and you thought your office was loud!

In addition to the noise, mechanical typewriters were also physically demanding on the typists. Electric typewriters were developed to reduce the noise and the physical strain of mechanical typewriters. Electric typewriters removed the direct mechanical connection between the keys and the elements striking the paper, replacing it with a motor to move the typebar mechanically. By the 1930s, electric typewriters were in widespread use. One of the leading manufacturers at this time was IBM - yes, the same IBM that played a major role in the development and commercialization of computer systems. While IBM is now known a computer industry giant, it started out in the typewriter business.

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