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When Did That Happen?

The Typewriter and Keyboard

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  On the birthday of the typewriter, Dan tracks the twists and turns of a concept from the typewriter through keypunch machines to today’s computer keyboards.  

On March 1, 1873, E. Remington and Sons, famous for making firearms, began commercial production of the Sholes and Glidden typewriter. The Remington Company had prospered during the Civil War, but with war’s end, they were trying to diversify their product line. In the late 1860s, they had begun to build sewing machines, and when they had the opportunity to purchase the typewriter patent, they saw a surprising synergy between these two technologies: they built their typewriter on a sewing machine chassis.

Remington called the device the Sholes and Glidden typewriter and they sold the first model until 1878. The machine was beset with problems and only 5,000 were ever sold. Although production of the Remington typewriter continued well into the twentieth century, the Remington Company sold the distribution and manufacturing rights—and even the name itself—in 1883.

It was with the renamed and re-engineered Remington Model 2, which could produce both upper case and lower case letters by using a shift key, that the typewriter really became a fixture in homes and offices. Priced at just over $100, the Remington 2 was an unqualified success. Before radio or television brought entertainment into the home, the typewriter could be found in the parlors of many upscale homes, where, believe it or not, the activity of typing was seen as family entertainment. Parents and children created printed documents, made their own copies of plays and novels, and wrote letters to friends. By 1900, you could find more than a quarter of a million typewriters in the nation’s homes and offices.

The Typewriter’s Killer App

At the New York Business Show in 1920, the Remington Typewriter Company unveiled a portable model (although the portable wasn’t actively marketed until the following year). Portability became the typewriter’s killer app. The Remington portable sold for sixty dollars and Remington sold over a half million of them. By the late 1920s, you could buy a portable in one of six different colors and show up at college in style. Everyone who could afford one had a typewriter.

From the time of the Sholes and Glidden model, the typewriter featured the familiar QWERTY keyboard with four rows of letters and numbers. The shift key, other special characters, and number pads were added to the keyboard over time, but the 19th century typewriter looked pretty much like a twentieth century typewriter.

Then, in 1933, IBM announced the type 032 keypunch machine. It was the first keypunch that could place alphabetic data on cards. It was also the first keypunch to print the punched data across the top of the card. If you ever have the chance to see a type 032 keypunch, you’ll see that it looks like an old typewriter placed on top of a sewing machine. The 032 adopted the QWERTY keyboard, but instead of typing letters onto paper rolling over a platen, it punched letters into a card.

IBM used the widespread familiarity with the typewriter to sell the keypunch. Its promotional literature advised that the 032 “operated in an entirely automatic mode in which the user merely depressed the keys as though typewriting and with the same speed.”

But unlike the typewriter, the type 032 keypunch was all business: all business data processing, to be exact. The marriage of typewriting and data processing had occurred.

Typing Refactored

On both the typewriter and the early keypunch, the keyboard was an integral part of the machinery. When the operator depressed a key, something physical happened. On the typewriter, depressing a key moved an arm with a letter on the end to strike and make an impression on a piece of paper. On the keypunch, depressing a key struck a metal surface which closed an electrical circuit to punch a hole in a column. It was with the use of abstraction, namely codes that could be sent, received, and interpreted electrically, that keyboards became independent mechanisms.

Another step in the keyboard’s independence came in 1874, when J. Baudot secured a patent on a code to replace Morse code. Instead of Morse’s dots and dashes, used in the telegraph, Baudot code used 5 bits to represent 32 different characters. Although it didn’t see much use in telegraphy, a variation of Baudot’s code was used in the teletype.

Then in the early 1960s, the ASCII standard for representing numbers and alphabetic characters was released. With the adoption of a standard for encoding characters, keyboards became fully separate components that produced a certain binary coded electric signal each time a specific key was depressed—and a keyboard could be attached to any device that could interpret the standard signal. It was just in time to join a revolution.

Sholes’ original four rows of keys that were used in 1873 with the manufacture of the first commercial typewriter could be found on a keyboard in 1975 on the world’s first personal computer.

In took just over 100 years, and it all started in March 1873—and that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites.