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Typing Through Time: Keyboard History

*This article is a work in progress. Chapters will be published as a series of installments over the course of the weeks to come. Please comment your feedback to improve this draft.

Typing Through Time : Keyboard History

Keyboards and typing technology have come a long way over the past couple centuries. The first typing devices were designed and patented in the 1700s while the first manufactured typing devices came about in the 1870s. These machines featured “blind typing” technology, where characters were printed on upside-down pages that remained unseen until completion. Since then, we have seen several updates in design, layout, technology, and function that are more efficient and user-friendly. The type-writer has changed shape dramatically over the years, eventually becoming electronic- then practically obsolete as we moved into the age of computers and the birth of the keyboard. The keyboard is the number one computer interface used around the world, and an integral object for many of us that most people take for granted. This paper will explore the history of typing, detailing the innovations across time that have accumulated  into the definition of today’s standard for the ultimate typing experience.

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Chapter One: Design – The Evolution of the Typewriter

To begin exploration of the first keyboards, we must first examine the origins of typing and the first typing devices. What did the first typing machines look like? The first manufactured typewriters resembled sewing machines more than what most people imagine when they think “typewriter.” Remington, who manufactured the first typewriters, were also manufacturing sewing machines at the time, leading to this initial design atheistic. The first Remington typewriters, created by Sholes, Glidden, and Soule even came with a foot pedal (like a sewing machine) to control carriage returns. So how did we get to where we are now, in the high-tech age of computers and plastics? To move forward, its important to first move backwards in time and see how these first commercially successful type-writers came to be.

Remington's First Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer 1867

Remington's First Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer 1867

Image source: from the Early Office Museum

Technically the first documented typing devices predate the Remington’s Sholes & Glidden typewriter, though none of them were manufactured for commercial use. In 1714, the first patent for a typing machine was issued in London, England to Henry Mill. Though there is no evidence that the machine was in fact constructed, or sold, all we know is that this typing device was intended to prepare legal documents in a manner that was neat, legible, and in a standardized format. Fast forward to 1808, another typing machine was patented to Pellegrino Turri in Italy. His machine was intended to allow the blind to “write.” With Pellegrino Turri’s typing device, also came the first Carbon Copy. Pellegrino’s invention of the carbon copy has made a lasting impact on the modern office (carbon copies are still regularly used on triplicate forms, phone message and memo pads, sales receipts etc.). In 1829 William Austin Burt also created a writing mechanism, a “Typowriter” that instead of keys, used dials to print characters, making this process slower than handwriting to produce words on a page, but it was a way to print legible, uniform text. The typowriter was also created with the intended use for the blind. A later model of the typowriter, created by John Jones in 1852 is pictured below. None of these devices gained much public interest, or commercial success.

1852 John Jones’ Mechanical Typographer

1852 John Jones’ Mechanical Typographer

Image source: Life photo archive

From 1829 up until 1870 there were many other typing devices that were patented along with the ones mentioned above, and like the previous devices none of them went into commercial production, or mainstream use. The only ones worth mentioning, for the sake of being extraordinary were Father Francisco Jaâo de Azevado’s “homemade” typewriter made from wood and knives in Brasil (1861), and Denmark’s Hansen Writing Ball (1865), both pictured below. Father Azevado’s typewriter is arguably the first “typewriter” as the mechanism is the most similar to the commercial models that followed its inception. It was completely constructed of household materials which makes it particularly interesting and impressive. Brazilians argue that his invention should be credited as the First Typewriter. Moving across the globe to Denmark just a few years later, The Hansen Writing Ball was invented by Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen, in 1865. The half-sphere shape of the ball is unlike any other typing device before or after it, and regardless of visual appeal, The Hansen Writing Ball actually gained quite a bit of attention in Europe and England as a fully functional typing device. It is documented that Hansen Writing Balls could be found in operation up until 1909 in many offices and businesses in England and Europe. Because of the relative success of this product, Malling-Hansen released a few different versions of this invention. His first Writing Ball began as an electric device, but later he released the “Tall Model” in 1875- where no electricity was needed. The fact that it no longer required electricity resulted in a broader range of consumers in various rural and urban locales.

Reproduction of 1861 Father Francisco Jaâo de Azevado Typewriter

Reproduction of 1861 Father Francisco Jaâo de Azevado Typewriter

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

1870 Hansen Writing Ball

1870 Hansen Writing Ball. Created by Reverend Rasmus Malling-Hansen in Denmark. © 2011 by AUCTION TEAM BREKER, Cologne, Germany (

Click this link to view additional images of the Hansen Writing Ball

Soon after the the Hansen Writing Ball’s creation, Sholes (an Inventor), Glidden (a Mechanic), and with the help of Soule (a Printer) came along with their 1867 type-writer that changed the world of typing as we know it. It is this “Type-Writer” that gave us the word typewriter, and is the model that is referred to as “The First Typewriter.” Interestingly enough, though this was the most successful typing device of that time, Sholes and Glidden were too frustrated by slow sales so they sold their patent to Densmore and Yost for $12,000. Machinist and clock-maker Matthais Schwalbach made the Sholes and Glidden typewriter in Milwaukee, and had Remington manufacture and sell it. Soon after this sewing-machine-like model was created and sold, the foot pedal was removed with carriage returns being controlled on the typewriter itself. Following this change, a slightly smaller, desk-top version of the typewriter came to be (though still extremely heavy and full of metal), losing the sewing machine look and defining its own look as a typewriter. By 1910 all typewriters were more or less standardized, sharing very similar resemblances across the board, until the IBM Selectric was introduced in 1961.

1961 Selectric I Typewriter by IBM

1961 Selectric I Typewriter by IBM

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Selectric typewriter, no longer used type-bars that struck the page. The Selectrics used typeballs (resembling golf balls) that rolled, tilted, and printed the letters on the page without the typebars. This was huge, because typewriter jams (when two typebars interlocked if you typed too fast) were no longer an issue. This increased typing speed, and efficiency. The other new element brought to the typewriter scene with the Selectrics was that the typeballs could easily be taken out, and replaced with others to change fonts quickly on the same document. This was also a major advancement in the industry. Though the Selectrics were still quite heavy, large, hunks of metal that were difficult to move around, the typeballs were small, easy to move, accessories that gave typists more freedom and accessibility. The Selectric Typewriter was produced up until the 1980s with three models that evolved over the course of those decades: The Selectric I, The Selectric II, and The Selectric III. They were available in a variety of colors including: vintage blue, mossy green, burnt red, beige, and black.

Selectric Type Balls

Selectric Type Balls

Image Source: Early Office Museum

The typewriter has come a long way over the years, all leading into the age of computers and the most widely used input device: the computer keyboard. Though the first computers and computer keyboards were created before the Selectric, these power-house typewriters were so great at putting text on the page that they continued to be used alongside keyboards, as computers gained in popularity. Hunter S. Thompson was known to write on one, and some writers such as David Sedaris to this day still use and prefer their Selectric Typewriter. Typewriters have largely been replaced and taken over by the keyboard as the preferred, and most used typing device. A few years ago, rumors generated by the Daily Mail even went as far to publish that the,  ”Last Typewriter Factory Left in the World Close[d] its Doors” which as it turns out was an exaggeration, and false  (as confirmed by NPR). Though the age of typewriters has faded and they have become more of a novelty than a necessity, several government offices continue to use typewriters to produce legal documents, which has kept and will keep typewriters in production, at least for the time being.

Chapter Two: Design – The Development of the Computer Keyboard

While typewriters were widely used throughout the 1950s to the 1970s, computers were starting to emerge as a consumer friendly product, beginning the age of the computer keyboard as a primary input device.  To understand the development of the computer keyboard, its important to understand the development and evolution of the computer. In 1946, the first computer, ENIAC was constructed and teletype was used to input data. As you can see below, the ENIAC computer took up an entire room, hundreds of times larger than the modern computer laptop. What was teletype and how is it different from from modern computer keyboard input?

ENIAC and Modern Computer Laptop1946 ENIAC Computer, compared to Modern Laptop.
Courtesy of the Computer History Museum
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