Spotlight Artifact: Sholes & Glidden Typewritter

TypewritterC.L. Sholes, an American mechanical engineer, along with his colleagues Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule, invented the first practical typewriting machine in 1866. After many years of alterations, experiments, and patent applications, the Sholes & Glidden typewriter, pictured in the image above, was first manufactured in 1873. This was a drastically improved model from their first attempts and, in many ways, is similar to today’s typewriters. Sholes sold the rights to Densmore, who in turn approached Philo Remington, the maker of Remington rifles, to help produce and market the new device. The first “Sholes & Glidden Type Writer” was offered for sale to the public in 1874, but was not a commercial success until several years later when some improvements to the keyboard were made by the Remington engineers. This particular typewriter was sent by Sholes to Julius H. Dawes of Buffalo. It is a handmade prototype, one of only five created and the last known to exist. It was used in Dawes’ law office for 17 years before being donated to The Buffalo History Museum.

An important aspect of Sholes’ invention, one that is still with us today, is the creation of the QWERTY keyboard. So named because of the first 6 letters on the top left of the keyboard, the design was so important to the creation of the typewriter that it was included in Sholes’ patent applications. The placement of the keys was a specific choice on Sholes’ part so as not to jam the moving parts of his machine. In his very first model, Sholes placed the keys in two rows, in alphabetical order. The result was sluggish and the machine often halted whenever someone tried to use it. The early letters were placed on the ends of rods called ‘typebars.’ If two typebars that were located next to each other were used in succession, they would clash with each other. So Sholes figured out that if he took the most common letter pairs and made sure that their typebars were not next to each other, then the type writer was much less likely to jam. The QWERTY keyboard was the result of this design and has been with us ever since.

–  Rebecca Justinger, Registrar

*This article was featured in the Spring 2014 issue of “The Album”