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Mechanical desktop typewriters, such as this Underwood Typewriter, were long-time standards in government agencies, newsrooms, and offices.
A typewriter being used to type "Wikipedia".

A typewriter is a mechanical or electromechanical machine for typing characters. Typically, a typewriter has an array of keys, and each one causes a different single character to be produced on paper by striking an inked ribbon selectively against the paper with a type element. Thereby, the machine produces a legible written document composed of ink and paper. By the end of the 19th century, a person who used such a device was also referred to as a typewriter.[1]

The first commercial typewriters were introduced in 1874,[2] but did not become common in offices in the United States until after the mid-1880s.[3] The typewriter quickly became an indispensable tool for practically all writing other than personal handwritten correspondence. It was widely used by professional writers, in offices, in business correspondence in private homes, and by students preparing written assignments.

Typewriters were a standard fixture in most offices up to the 1980s. After that, they began to be largely supplanted by personal computers running word processing software. Nevertheless, typewriters remain common in some parts of the world. For example, typewriters are still used in many Indian cities and towns, especially in roadside and legal offices, due to a lack of continuous, reliable electricity.[4]

The QWERTY keyboard layout, developed for typewriters in the 1870s, remains the de facto standard for English-language computer keyboards. The origins of this layout still need to be clarified.[5] Similar typewriter keyboards, with layouts optimised for other languages and orthographies, emerged soon afterward, and their layouts have also become standard for computer keyboards in their respective markets.


Peter Mitterhofer's typewriter prototype (1864)
The 1969 Olivetti Valentine typewriter, featured in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York;[6][7] London's Design Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum.[8][9]
Video the Olivetti Valentine typewriter in use.
An Elliott-Fisher book typewriter on display at the Historic Archive and Museum of Mining in Pachuca, Mexico

Although many modern typewriters have one of several similar designs, their invention was incremental, developed by numerous inventors working independently or in competition with each other over a series of decades. As with the automobile, the telephone, and telegraph, several people contributed insights and inventions that eventually resulted in ever more commercially successful instruments. Historians have estimated that some form of the typewriter was invented 52 times as thinkers tried to come up with a workable design.[10]

Some early typing instruments include:

  • In 1575, an Italian printmaker, Francesco Rampazetto, invented the scrittura tattile, a machine to impress letters in papers.[11]
  • In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a patent in Britain for a machine that, from the patent, appears to have been similar to a typewriter. The patent shows that this machine was created: "[he] hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; that the said machine or method may be of great use in settlements and public records, the impression being deeper and more lasting than any other writing, and not to be erased or counterfeited without manifest discovery."[12]
  • In 1802, Italian Agostino Fantoni developed a particular typewriter to enable his blind sister to write.[13]
  • Between 1801 and 1808, Italian Pellegrino Turri invented a typewriter for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano.[14]
  • In 1823, Italian Pietro Conti da Cilavegna invented a new model of the typewriter, the tachigrafo, also known as tachitipo.[15]
  • In 1829, American William Austin Burt patented a machine called the "Typographer" which, in common with many other early machines, is listed as the "first typewriter". The London Science Museum describes it merely as "the first writing mechanism whose invention was documented", but even that claim may be excessive since Turri's invention pre-dates it.[16]

By the mid-19th century, the increasing pace of business communication had created a need to mechanize the writing process. Stenographers and telegraphers could take down information at rates up to 130 words per minute, whereas a writer with a pen was limited to a maximum of 30 words per minute (the 1853 speed record).[17]

From 1829 to 1870, many printing or typing machines were patented by inventors in Europe and America, but none went into commercial production.[18]

After the market had matured under the market dominance of large companies from Britain, Europe and the United States—but before the advent of daisywheel and electronic machines—the typewriter market faced strong competition from less expensive typewriters from Asia, including Brother Industries and Silver Seiko Ltd. of Japan.

Hansen Writing Ball[edit]

Hansen Writing Ball was the first typewriter manufactured commercially (1870)

In 1865, Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen of Denmark invented the Hansen Writing Ball, which went into commercial production in 1870 and was the first commercially sold typewriter. It was a success in Europe and was reported as being used in offices on the European continent as late as 1909.[26][27]

Malling-Hansen used a solenoid escapement to return the carriage on some of his models, which makes him a candidate for the title of inventor of the first "electric" typewriter.[28]

The Hansen Writing Ball was produced with only upper-case characters. The Writing Ball was a template for inventor Frank Haven Hall to create a derivative that would produce letter prints cheaper and faster.[29][30][31]

Malling-Hansen developed his typewriter further through the 1870s and 1880s and made many improvements, but the writing head remained the same. On the first model of the writing ball from 1870, the paper was attached to a cylinder inside a wooden box. In 1874, the cylinder was replaced by a carriage, moving beneath the writing head. Then, in 1875, the well-known "tall model" was patented, which was the first of the writing balls that worked without electricity. Malling-Hansen attended the world exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and Paris in 1878 and he received the first-prize for his invention at both exhibitions.[32][33][34]

Sholes and Glidden typewriter[edit]

Prototype of the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, the first commercially successful typewriter, and the first with a QWERTY keyboard (1873)

The first typewriter to be commercially successful was patented in 1868 by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,[35] although Sholes soon disowned the machine and refused to use or even recommend it.[36] The working prototype was made by clock-maker and machinist Matthias Schwalbach.[37] Hall, Glidden and Soule sold their shares in the patent (US 79,265) to Densmore and Sholes,[38] who made an agreement with E. Remington and Sons (then famous as a manufacturer of sewing machines) to commercialize the machine as the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer.[37] This was the origin of the term typewriter.

Remington began production of its first typewriter on March 1, 1873, in Ilion, New York. It had a QWERTY keyboard layout, which, because of the machine's success, was slowly adopted by other typewriter manufacturers. As with most other early typewriters, because the typebars strike upwards, the typist could not see the characters as they were typed.[38]

Index typewriter[edit]

Hall 1 typewriter, 1881 - The first index typewriter
Columbia 2 typewriter, 1886 - Early index typewriter with proportional spacing
Victor typewriter, 1889 - The first successful typewriter to use a daisy wheel
A Mignon Model 4 index typewriter from 1924

The index typewriter came into the market in the early 1880s.[39] The index typewriter uses a pointer or stylus to choose a letter from an index. The pointer is mechanically linked so that the letter chosen could then be printed, most often by the activation of a lever.[18]

The index typewriter was briefly popular in niche markets. Although they were slower than keyboard type machines, they were mechanically simpler and lighter. They were therefore marketed as being suitable for travellers and, because they could be produced more cheaply than keyboard machines, as budget machines for users who needed to produce small quantities of typed correspondence.[39] For example, the Simplex Typewriter Company made index typewriters for 1/40 the price of a Remington typewriter.[40]

The index typewriter's niche appeal however soon disappeared, as on the one hand new keyboard typewriters became lighter and more portable and on the other refurbished second-hand machines began to become available.[39] The last widely available western index machine was the Mignon typewriter produced by AEG which was produced until 1934. Considered one of the very best of the index typewriters, part of the Mignon's popularity was that it featured both interchangeable indexes and type,[41] allowing the use of different fonts and character sets, something very few keyboard machines allowed and only at considerable added cost.[41]

Although pushed out of the market in most of the world by keyboard machines, successful Japanese and Chinese typewriters are of the index type albeit with a very much larger index and number of type elements.[42]

Embossing tape label makers are the most common index typewriters today, and perhaps the most common typewriters of any kind still being manufactured.[40]

The platen was mounted on a carriage that moved horizontally to the left, automatically advancing the typing position, after each character was typed. The carriage-return lever at the far left was then pressed to the right to return the carriage to its starting position and rotating the platen to advance the paper vertically. A small bell was struck a few characters before the right hand margin was reached to warn the operator to complete the word and then use the carriage-return lever.[43]

Other typewriters[edit]

Hammond 1 typewriter, 1885
Fitch 1 typewriter, 1888
Underwood 1 typewriter, 1896 - The typewriter that would set the design standard for the new century, with three rows of keys, front strike visible and a single shift key. It also had a wonderfuly light and fast typing action.
A very early typewritten letter as part of a court case in the Utah Territory, from Appeal #6544, dated 1886.
  • 1884 – Hammond "Ideal" typewriter with case, by Hammond Typewriter Company Limited, United States. Despite an unusual, curved keyboard (see picture in citation), the Hammond became popular because of its superior print quality and changeable typeface. Invented by James Hammond of Boston, Massachusetts in 1880, and commercially released in 1884. The type is carried on a pair of interchangeable rotating sectors, one controlled by each half of the keyboard. A small hammer pushes the paper against the ribbon and type sector to print each character. The mechanism was later adapted to give a straight QWERTY keyboard and proportional spacing.[44]
  • 1888 – Fitch typewriter – Made by the Fitch Typewriter Company, Brooklyn, N.Y. and later in the UK with a slightly different look. Operators of the early typewriters had to work "blind": the typed text emerged only after several lines had been completed or the carriage was lifted to look underneath at the page. The Fitch was one of the first machines to allow prompt correction of mistakes with its visible writing; it was said to be the second machine operating on the visible writing system. The typebars were positioned behind the paper and the writing area faced upwards so that the result could be seen instantly. A curved frame kept the emerging paper from obscuring the keyboard, but the Fitch was soon eclipsed by machines in which the paper could be fed more conveniently at the rear.[45]
  • 1893 – Gardner typewriter. This typewriter, patented by Mr J Gardner in 1893, was an attempt to reduce the size and cost. Although it prints 84 symbols, it has only 14 keys and two change-case keys. Several characters are indicated on each key and the character printed is determined by the position of the case keys, which choose one of six cases.[46]
  • 1896 – The "Underwood 1 typewriter, 10" Pica, No. 990". This was the first typewriter with a typing area fully visible to the typist until a key is struck. These features, copied by all subsequent typewriters, allowed the typist to see and if necessary correct the typing as it proceeded. The mechanism was developed in the US by Franz X. Wagner from about 1892 and taken up, in 1895, by John T. Underwood (1857–1937), a producer of office supplies.[47]


By about 1910, the "manual" or "mechanical" typewriter had reached a somewhat standardized design.[48] There were minor variations from one manufacturer to another, but most typewriters followed the concept that each key was attached to a typebar that had the corresponding letter molded, in reverse, into its striking head. When a key was struck briskly and firmly, the typebar hit a ribbon (usually made of inked fabric), making a printed mark on the paper wrapped around a cylindrical platen.[49][50]

The platen was mounted on a carriage that moved horizontally to the left, automatically advancing the typing position, after each character was typed. The carriage-return lever at the far left was then pressed to the right to return the carriage to its starting position and rotating the platen to advance the paper vertically. A small bell was struck a few characters before the right hand margin was reached to warn the operator to complete the word and then use the carriage-return lever.[43] Typewriters for languages written right-to-left operate in the opposite direction.[51]


Daugherty typewriter, 1893

In most of the early typewriters, the typebars struck upward against the paper, pressed against the bottom of the platen, so the typist could not see the text as it was typed.[52] What was typed was not visible until a carriage return caused it to scroll into view.

The difficulty with any other arrangement was ensuring the typebars fell back into place reliably when the key was released. This was eventually achieved with various ingenious mechanical designs and so-called "visible typewriters" which used frontstriking, in which the typebars struck forward against the front side of the platen, became standard. One of the first was the Daugherty Visible, introduced in 1893, which also introduced the four-bank keyboard that became standard, although the Underwood which came out two years later was the first major typewriter with these features.[53][54]

Shift key[edit]

Remington 2 typewriter, 1878
Comparison of full-keyboard, single-shift, and double-shift typewriters in 1911
Corona #3 typewriter owned by Ernest Hemingway, with a "FIG" shift key as well as a "CAP" shift key

A significant innovation was the shift key, introduced with the Remington No. 2 in 1878. This key physically "shifted" either the basket of typebars, in which case the typewriter is described as "basket shift", or the paper-holding carriage, in which case the typewriter is described as "carriage shift".[55] Either mechanism caused a different portion of the typebar to come in contact with the ribbon/platen.

The result is that each typebar could type two different characters, cutting the number of keys and typebars in half (and simplifying the internal mechanisms considerably). The obvious use for this was to allow letter keys to type both upper and lower case, but normally the number keys were also duplexed, allowing access to special symbols such as percent, %, and ampersand, &.[56]

Before the shift key, typewriters had to have a separate key and typebar for upper-case letters; in essence, the typewriter had two keyboards, one above the other. With the shift key, manufacturing costs (and therefore purchase price) were greatly reduced, and typist operation was simplified; both factors contributed greatly to mass adoption of the technology.

Three-bank typewriters[edit]

Certain models further reduced the number of keys and typebars by making each key perform three functions – each typebar could type three different characters. These little three-row machines were portable and could be used by journalists.[57]

Such three-row machines were popular with WWI journalists because they were lighter and more compact than four-bank typewriters, while they could type just as fast and use just as many symbols.[58]

Such three-row machines, such as the Bar-Let[59] and the Corona No. 3 Typewriter[60][61] have two separate shift keys, a "CAP" shift (for uppercase) and a "FIG" shift (for numbers and symbols).[62]

The Murray code was developed for a teletypewriter with a similar three-row typewriter keyboard.[63]

Tab key[edit]

To facilitate typewriter use in business settings, a tab (tabulator) key was added in the late nineteenth century. Before using the key, the operator had to set mechanical "tab stops", pre-designated locations to which the carriage would advance when the tab key was pressed. This facilitated the typing of columns of numbers, freeing the operator from the need to manually position the carriage. The first models had one tab stop and one tab key; later ones allowed as many stops as desired, and sometimes had multiple tab keys, each of which moved the carriage a different number of spaces ahead of the decimal point (the tab stop), to facilitate the typing of columns with numbers of different length ($1.00, $10.00, $100.00, etc.)

Dead keys[edit]

Languages such as French, Spanish, and German required diacritics, special signs attached to or on top of the base letter: for example, a combination of the acute accent ´ plus e produced é; ~ plus n produced ñ. In metal typesetting, ⟨é⟩, ⟨ñ⟩, and others were separate sorts. With mechanical typewriters, the number of whose characters (sorts) was constrained by the physical limits of the machine, the number of keys required was reduced by the use of dead keys. Diacritics such as ´ (acute accent) would be assigned to a dead key, which did not move the platen forward, permitting another character to be imprinted at the same location; thus a single dead key such as the acute accent could be combined with a,e,i,o and u to produce á,é,í,ó and ú, reducing the number of sorts needed from 5 to 1. The typebars of "normal" characters struck a rod as they moved the metal character desired toward the ribbon and platen, and each rod depression moved the platen forward the width of one character. Dead keys had a typebar shaped so as not to strike the rod.[64]

Character sizes[edit]

In English-speaking countries, ordinary typewriters printing fixed-width characters were standardized to print six horizontal lines per vertical inch, and had either of two variants of character width, one called pica for ten characters per horizontal inch and the other elite, for twelve. This differed from the use of these terms in printing, where pica is a linear unit (approximately 16 of an inch) used for any measurement, the most common one being the height of a typeface.[65]


Some ribbons were inked in black and red stripes, each being half the width and running the entire length of the ribbon. A lever on most machines allowed switching between colors, which was useful for bookkeeping entries where negative amounts were highlighted in red. The red color was also used on some selected characters in running text, for emphasis. When a typewriter had this facility, it could still be fitted with a solid black ribbon; the lever was then used to switch to fresh ribbon when the first stripe ran out of ink. Some typewriters also had a third position which stopped the ribbon being struck at all. This enabled the keys to hit the paper unobstructed, and was used for cutting stencils for stencil duplicators (aka mimeograph machines).[66]

"Noiseless" designs[edit]

Rapid typewriter, 1890

The first typewriter to have the sliding type bars (laid out horizontally like a fan) that enable a typewriter to be 'noiseless' was the American made Rapid which appeared briefly on the market in 1890. The Rapid also had the remarkable ability for the typist to have entire control of the carriage by manipulation of the keyboard alone. The two keys that achieve this are positioned at the top of the keyboard (seen in the detail image below). They are a ‘Lift’ key that advances the paper, on the platen, to the next line and a ‘Return’ key that causes the carriage to automatically swing back to the right, ready for one to type the new line. So an entire page could be typed without one’s hands leaving the keyboard.

In the early part of the 20th century, a typewriter was marketed under the name Noiseless and advertised as "silent". It was developed by Wellington Parker Kidder and the first model was marketed by the Noiseless Typewriter Company in 1917.[67] Noiseless portables sold well in the 1930s and 1940s, and noiseless standards continued to be manufactured until the 1960s.[68]

In a conventional typewriter the type bar reaches the end of its travel simply by striking the ribbon and paper. The Noiseless, developed by Kidder, has a complex lever mechanism that decelerates the type bar mechanically before pressing it against the ribbon and paper in an attempt to dampen the noise.[69]

Electric designs[edit]

Although electric typewriters would not achieve widespread popularity until nearly a century later, the basic groundwork for the electric typewriter was laid by the Universal Stock Ticker, invented by Thomas Edison in 1870. This device remotely printed letters and numbers on a stream of paper tape from input generated by a specially designed typewriter at the other end of a telegraph line.

Early electric models[edit]

Some electric typewriters were patented in the 19th century, but the first machine known to be produced in series is the Cahill of 1900.[70]

Another electric typewriter was produced by the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company, of Stamford, Connecticut, in 1902. Like the manual Blickensderfer typewriters, it used a cylindrical typewheel rather than individual typebars. The machine was produced in several variants but apparently not a commercial success,[71] having come to market ahead of its time, before ubiquitous electrification.

The next step in the development of the electric typewriter came in 1910, when Charles and Howard Krum filed a patent for the first practical teletypewriter.[72] The Krums' machine, named the Morkrum Printing Telegraph, used a typewheel rather than individual typebars. This machine was used for the first commercial teletypewriter system on Postal Telegraph Company lines between Boston and New York City in 1910.[73]

James Fields Smathers of Kansas City invented what is considered the first practical power-operated typewriter in 1914. In 1920, after returning from Army service, he produced a successful model and in 1923 turned it over to the Northeast Electric Company of Rochester for development. Northeast was interested in finding new markets for their electric motors and developed Smathers's design so that it could be marketed to typewriter manufacturers, and from 1925 Remington Electric typewriters were produced powered by Northeast's motors.[74]

After some 2,500 electric typewriters had been produced, Northeast asked Remington for a firm contract for the next batch. However, Remington was engaged in merger talks, which would eventually result in the creation of Remington Rand and no executives were willing to commit to a firm order. Northeast instead decided to enter the typewriter business for itself, and in 1929 produced the first Electromatic Typewriter.[75]

In 1928, Delco, a division of General Motors, purchased Northeast Electric, and the typewriter business was spun off as Electromatic Typewriters, Inc. In 1933, Electromatic was acquired by IBM, which then spent $1 million on a redesign of the Electromatic Typewriter, launching the IBM Electric Typewriter Model 01.[76]

In 1931, an electric typewriter was introduced by Varityper Corporation. It was called the Varityper, because a narrow cylinder-like wheel could be replaced to change the font.[77]

In 1941, IBM announced the Electromatic Model 04 electric typewriter, featuring the revolutionary concept of proportional spacing. By assigning varied rather than uniform spacing to different sized characters, the Type 4 recreated the appearance of a typeset page, an effect that was further enhanced by including the 1937 innovation of carbon-film ribbons that produced clearer, sharper words on the page.[78]

IBM Selectric[edit]

IBM Selectric II (dual Latin/Hebrew typeball and keyboard)

IBM introduced the IBM Selectric typewriter in 1961, which replaced the typebars with a spherical element (or typeball) slightly smaller than a golf ball, with reverse-image letters molded into its surface. The Selectric used a system of latches, metal tapes, and pulleys driven by an electric motor to rotate the ball into the correct position and then strike it against the ribbon and platen. The typeball moved laterally in front of the paper, instead of the previous designs using a platen-carrying carriage moving the paper across a stationary print position.[79]

Due to the physical similarity, the typeball was sometimes referred to as a "golfball".[80] The typeball design had many advantages, especially the elimination of "jams" (when more than one key was struck at once and the typebars became entangled) and in the ability to change the typeball, allowing multiple fonts to be used in a single document.[81]

The IBM Selectric became a commercial success, dominating the office typewriter market for at least two decades.[80] IBM also gained an advantage by marketing more heavily to schools than did Remington, with the idea that students who learned to type on a Selectric would later choose IBM typewriters over the competition in the workplace as businesses replaced their old manual models.[82]

Later models of IBM Executives and Selectrics replaced inked fabric ribbons with "carbon film" ribbons that had a dry black or colored powder on a clear plastic tape. These could be used only once, but later models used a cartridge that was simple to replace. A side effect of this technology was that the text typed on the machine could be easily read from the used ribbon, raising issues where the machines were used for preparing classified documents (ribbons had to be accounted for to ensure that typists did not carry them from the facility).[83]

A variation known as "Correcting Selectrics" introduced a correction feature, later imitated by competing machines, where a sticky tape in front of the carbon film ribbon could remove the black-powdered image of a typed character, eliminating the need for little bottles of white dab-on correction fluid and for hard erasers that could tear the paper. These machines also introduced selectable "pitch" so that the typewriter could be switched between pica type (10 characters per inch) and elite type (12 per inch), even within one document. Even so, all Selectrics were monospaced – each character and letterspace was allotted the same width on the page, from a capital "W" to a period. IBM did produce a successful typebar-based machine with five levels of proportional spacing, called the IBM Executive.[84]

The only fully electromechanical Selectric Typewriter with fully proportional spacing and which used a Selectric type element was the expensive Selectric Composer, which was capable of right-margin justification (typing each line twice was required, once to calculate and again to print) and was considered a typesetting machine rather than a typewriter. Composer typeballs physically resembled those of the Selectric typewriter but were not interchangeable.[85]

Composer output showing Roman, Bold and Italic fonts available by changing the type ball

In addition to its electronic successors, the Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer (MT/SC), the Mag Card Selectric Composer, and the Electronic Selectric Composer, IBM also made electronic typewriters with proportional spacing using the Selectric element that were considered typewriters or word processors instead of typesetting machines.[85][86]

The first of these was the relatively obscure Mag Card Executive, which used 88-character elements. Later, some of the same typestyles used for it were used on the 96-character elements used on the IBM Electronic Typewriter 50 and the later models 65 and 85.[87]

By 1970, as offset printing began to replace letterpress printing, the Composer would be adapted as the output unit for a phototypesetting system. The system included a computer-driven input station to capture the key strokes on magnetic tape and insert the operator's format commands, and a Composer unit to read the tape and produce the formatted text for photo reproduction.[88]

The IBM 2741 terminal was a popular example of a Selectric-based computer terminal, and similar mechanisms were employed as the console devices for many IBM System/360 computers. These mechanisms used "ruggedized" designs compared to those in standard office typewriters.[89]

Later electric models[edit]

Some of IBM's advances were later adopted in less expensive machines from competitors. For example, Smith-Corona electric typewriters introduced in 1973 switched to interchangeable Coronamatic (SCM-patented) ribbon cartridges.[90] including fabric, film, erasing, and two-color versions. At about the same time, the advent of photocopying meant that carbon copies, correction fluid and erasers were less and less necessary; only the original need be typed, and photocopies made from it.[91][better source needed]

Electronic typewriters[edit]

The final major development of the typewriter was the electronic typewriter. Most of these replaced the typeball with a plastic or metal daisy wheel mechanism (a disk with the letters molded on the outside edge of the "petals"). The daisy wheel concept first emerged in printers developed by Diablo Systems in the 1970s. The first electronic daisywheel typewriter marketed in the world (in 1976) is the Olivetti Tes 501, and subsequently in 1978, the Olivetti ET101 (with function display) and Olivetti TES 401 (with text display and floppy disk for memory storage). This has allowed Olivetti to maintain the world record in the design of electronic typewriters, proposing increasingly advanced and performing models in the following years.[92]

Unlike the Selectrics and earlier models, these really were "electronic" and relied on integrated circuits and electromechanical components. These typewriters were sometimes called display typewriters,[93] dedicated word processors or word-processing typewriters, though the latter term was also frequently applied to less sophisticated machines that featured only a tiny, sometimes just single-row display. Sophisticated models were also called word processors, though today that term almost always denotes a type of software program. Manufacturers of such machines included Olivetti (TES501, first totally electronic Olivetti word processor with daisywheel and floppy disk in 1976; TES621 in 1979 etc.), Brother (Brother WP1 and WP500 etc., where WP stood for word processor), Canon (Canon Cat), Smith-Corona (PWP, i.e. Personal Word Processor line)[94] and Philips/Magnavox (VideoWriter).


The pace of change was so rapid that it was common for clerical staff to have to learn several new systems, one after the other, in just a few years.[95] While such rapid change is commonplace today, and is taken for granted, this was not always so; in fact, typewriting technology changed very little in its first 80 or 90 years.[96]

Due to falling sales, IBM sold its typewriter division in 1991 to the newly formed Lexmark, completely exiting from a market it once dominated.[97]

The increasing dominance of personal computers, desktop publishing, the introduction of low-cost, truly high-quality laser and inkjet printer technologies, and the pervasive use of web publishing, email, text messaging, and other electronic communication techniques have largely replaced typewriters in the United States. Still, as of 2009, typewriters continued to be used by a number of government agencies and other institutions in the US, where they are primarily used to fill preprinted forms. According to a Boston typewriter repairman quoted by The Boston Globe, "Every maternity ward has a typewriter, as well as funeral homes".[98]

A rather specialized market for typewriters exists due to the regulations of many correctional systems in the US, where prisoners are prohibited from having computers or telecommunication equipment, but are allowed to own typewriters. The Swintec corporation (headquartered in Moonachie, New Jersey), which, as of 2011, still produced typewriters at its overseas factories (in Japan, Indonesia, and/or Malaysia), manufactures a variety of typewriters for use in prisons, made of clear plastic (to make it harder for prisoners to hide prohibited items inside it). As of 2011, the company had contracts with prisons in 43 US states.[99][100]

In April 2011, Godrej and Boyce, a Mumbai-based manufacturer of mechanical typewriters, closed its doors, leading to a flurry of news reports that the "world's last typewriter factory" had shut down.[101] The reports were quickly contested, with opinions settling to agree that it was indeed the world's last producer of manual typewriters.[102][103][104][105]

In November 2012, Brother's UK factory manufactured what it claimed to be the last typewriter ever made in the UK; the typewriter was donated to the London Science Museum.[106]

Russian typewriters use Cyrillic, which has made the ongoing Azerbaijani reconversion from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet more difficult. In 1997, the government of Turkey offered to donate western typewriters to the Republic of Azerbaijan in exchange for more zealous and exclusive promotion of the Latin alphabet for the Azerbaijani language; this offer, however, was declined.[107]

In Latin America and Africa, mechanical typewriters are still common because they can be used without electrical power. In Latin America, the typewriters used are most often Brazilian models; Brazil continues to produce mechanical (Facit) and electronic (Olivetti) typewriters to the present day.[108]

The early 21st century saw revival of interest in typewriters among certain subcultures, including makers, steampunks, hipsters, and street poets.[109]

Correction technologies[edit]

According to the standards taught in secretarial schools in the mid-20th century, a business letter was supposed to have no mistakes and no visible corrections.[110]

Typewriter erasers[edit]

Triumph typewriter eraser (1960)

The traditional erasing method involved the use of a special typewriter eraser made of hard rubber that contained an abrasive material. Some were thin, flat disks, pink or gray, approximately 2 inches (51 mm) in diameter by 18 inch (3.2 mm) thick, with a brush attached from the center, while others looked like pink pencils, with a sharpenable eraser at the "lead" end and a stiff nylon brush at the other end. Either way, these tools made possible erasure of individual typed letters. Business letters were typed on heavyweight, high-rag-content bond paper, not merely to provide a luxurious appearance, but also to stand up to erasure.[111]

Typewriter eraser brushes were necessary for clearing eraser crumbs and paper dust, and using the brush properly was an important element of typewriting skill; if erasure detritus fell into the typewriter, a small buildup could cause the typebars to jam in their narrow supporting grooves.[112]

Erasing Shield (1992)

Erasing shield[edit]

Erasing a set of carbon copies was particularly difficult, and called for the use of a device called an erasing shield or eraser shield (a thin stainless-steel rectangle about 2 by 3 inches (51 by 76 mm) with several tiny holes in it) to prevent the pressure of erasing on the upper copies from producing carbon smudges on the lower copies. To correct copies, typists had to go from one carbon copy layer to the next carbon copy layer, trying not to get their fingers dirty as they leafed through the carbon papers, and moving and repositioning the eraser shield and eraser for each copy.

Erasable bond[edit]

Paper companies produced a special form of typewriter paper called erasable bond (for example, Eaton's Corrasable Bond). This incorporated a thin layer of material that prevented ink from penetrating and was relatively soft and easy to remove from the page. An ordinary soft pencil eraser could quickly produce perfect erasures on this kind of paper. However, the same characteristics that made the paper erasable made the characters subject to smudging due to ordinary friction and deliberate alteration after the fact, making it unacceptable for business correspondence, contracts, or any archival use.[113]

Correction fluid[edit]

In the 1950s and 1960s, correction fluid made its appearance, under brand names such as Liquid Paper, Wite-Out and Tipp-Ex; it was invented by Bette Nesmith Graham. Correction fluid was a kind of opaque, white, fast-drying paint that produced a fresh white surface onto which, when dry, a correction could be retyped. However, when held to the light, the covered-up characters were visible, as was the patch of dry correction fluid (which was never perfectly flat, and frequently not a perfect match for the color, texture, and luster of the surrounding paper). The standard trick for solving this problem was photocopying the corrected page, but this was possible only with high quality photocopiers.[114]

A different fluid was available for correcting stencils. It sealed up the stencil ready for retyping but did not attempt to color match.[115]


Keyboard layouts[edit]

The "QWERTY" layout of typewriter keys became a de facto standard and continues to be used long after the reasons for its adoption (including reduction of key/lever entanglements) have ceased to apply.


The 1874 Sholes & Glidden typewriters established the "QWERTY" layout for the letter keys. During the period in which Sholes and his colleagues were experimenting with this invention, other keyboard arrangements were apparently tried, but these are poorly documented.[116] The QWERTY layout of keys has become the de facto standard for English-language typewriter and computer keyboards. Other languages written in the Latin alphabet sometimes use variants of the QWERTY layouts, such as the French AZERTY, the Italian QZERTY and the German QWERTZ layouts.[117]

The QWERTY layout is not the most efficient layout possible for the English language. Touch-typists are required to move their fingers between rows to type the most common letters. Although the QWERTY keyboard was the most commonly used layout in typewriters, a better, less strenuous keyboard was being searched for throughout the late 1900s.[118]

One popular but incorrect[5] explanation for the QWERTY arrangement is that it was designed to reduce the likelihood of internal clashing of typebars by placing commonly used combinations of letters farther from each other inside the machine.[119]

Other layouts for English[edit]

A number of radically different layouts such as Dvorak have been proposed to reduce the perceived inefficiencies of QWERTY, but none have been able to displace the QWERTY layout; their proponents claim considerable advantages, but so far none has been widely used. The Blickensderfer typewriter with its DHIATENSOR layout may have possibly been the first attempt at optimizing the keyboard layout for efficiency advantages.[120]

On modern keyboards, the exclamation point is the shifted character on the 1 key, because these were the last characters to become "standard" on keyboards. Holding the spacebar down usually suspended the carriage advance mechanism (a so-called "dead key" feature), allowing one to superimpose multiple keystrikes on a single location. The ¢ symbol (meaning cents) was located above the number 6 on American electric typewriters, whereas ANSI-INCITS-standard computer keyboards have ^ instead.[121]

Keyboards for other languages[edit]

Italian typewriter Olivetti Lettera 22

The keyboards for other Latin languages are broadly similar to QWERTY but are optimised for the relevant orthography. In addition to some changes in the order of letters, perhaps the most obvious is the presence of precomposed characters and diacritics.

Many non-Latin alphabets have keyboard layouts that have nothing to do with QWERTY. The Russian layout, for instance, puts the common trigrams ыва, про, and ить on adjacent keys so that they can be typed by rolling the fingers.[122]

Typewriters were also made for East Asian languages with thousands of characters, such as Chinese or Japanese. They were not easy to operate, but professional typists used them for a long time until the development of electronic word processors and laser printers in the 1980s.[123]

Typewriter conventions[edit]

This typed page uses a number of typographic conventions stemming from the mechanical limitations of the typewriter: two hyphens in place of an em dash, double sentence spacing, straight quotation marks, tab indents for paragraphs, and double carriage returns between paragraphs

A number of typographical conventions stem from the typewriter's characteristics and limitations. For example, the QWERTY keyboard typewriter did not include keys for the en dash and the em dash. To overcome this limitation, users typically typed more than one adjacent hyphen to approximate these symbols.[124] This typewriter convention is still sometimes used today, even though modern computer word processing applications can input the correct en and em dashes for each font type.[125]

Other examples of typewriter practices that are sometimes still used in desktop publishing systems include inserting a double space between sentences,[126][127] and the use of the typewriter apostrophe, ', and straight quotes, ", as quotation marks and prime marks.[128] The practice of underlining text in place of italics and the use of all capitals to provide emphasis are additional examples of typographical conventions that derived from the limitations of the typewriter keyboard that still carry on today.[129]

Many older typewriters did not include a separate key for the numeral 1 or the exclamation point !, and some even older ones also lacked the numeral zero, 0. Typists who trained on these machines learned the habit of using the lowercase letter l ("ell") for the digit 1, and the uppercase O ("oh") for the zero. A cents symbol, ¢ was created by combining (over-striking) a lower case c with a slash character (typing c, then backspace, then /). Similarly, the exclamation point was created by combining an apostrophe and a period ('+.!).[130]

Terminology repurposed for the computer age [edit]

Some terminology from the typewriter age has survived into the computer era.

  • backspace (BS) – a keystroke that moved the cursor backwards one position (on a typewriter, this moved the physical platen backwards), to enable a character to be overtyped. Originally this was used to combine characters (for example, the sequence ', backspace, . to make !). Subsequently it facilitated "erase and retype" corrections (using correction tape or fluid.[131]) Only the latter concept has survived into the computer age.
  • carriage return (CR) – return to the first column of text. (Most typewriters switched automatically to the next line. In computer systems, "line feed" (see below) is a function that is controlled independently.)[132]
  • cursor – a marker used to indicate where the next character will be printed. The cursor was originally a term to describe the clear slider on a slide rule;[133] on typewriters, it was the paper that moved and the insertion point was fixed.
  • cut and paste – taking text, a numerical table, or an image and pasting it into a document. The term originated when such compound documents were created using manual paste up techniques for typographic page layout. Actual brushes and paste were later replaced by hot-wax machines equipped with cylinders that applied melted adhesive wax to developed prints of "typeset" copy. This copy was then cut out with knives and rulers, and slid into position on layout sheets on slanting layout tables. After the "copy" had been correctly positioned and squared up using a T-square and set square, it was pressed down with a brayer, or roller. The whole point of the exercise was to create so-called "camera-ready copy" which existed only to be photographed and then printed, usually by offset lithography.[134]
  • dead key – a key that, when typed, does not advance the typing position, thus allowing another character to be overstruck on top of the original character. This was typically used to combine diacritical marks with letters they modified (e.g. è can be generated by first pressing ` and then e). In Europe, where most languages have diacritics, a typical mechanical arrangement meant that hitting the accent key typed the symbol but did not advance the carriage, consequently the next character to be typed 'landed' on the same position. It was this method that carried across to the computer age whereas an alternative method (press the space bar simultaneously) did not.
  • line feed (LF), also called "newline" – Whereas most typewriters rolled the paper forward automatically on a "carriage return), this is an explicit control character on computer systems that moves the cursor to the next on-screen line of text.[132] (But not to the beginning of that line – a CR is also needed if that effect is desired.)
  • shift – a modifier key used to type capital letters and other alternate "upper case" characters; when pressed and held down, would shift a typewriter's mechanism to allow a different typebar impression (such as 'D' instead of 'd') to press into the ribbon and print on a page. The concept of a shift key or modifier key was later extended to Ctrl, Alt, AltGr and Super ("Windows" or "Apple") keys on modern computer keyboards. The generalized concept of a shift key reached its apex in the MIT space-cadet keyboard.[135]
  • tab (HT), shortened from "horizontal tab" or "tabulator stop" – caused the print position to advance horizontally to the next pre-set "tab stop". This was used for typing lists and tables with vertical columns of numbers or words.[136]
    • The vertical tab (VT) control character, named by analogy with HT, was designed for use with early computer line printers, and would cause the fan-fold paper to be fed until the next line's position.
  • tty, short for teletypewriter – used in Unix-like operating systems to designate a given "terminal".[137]

Social effects[edit]

Humorous "Get out! Can't you see I'm busy" postcard (1900s)

When Remington started marketing typewriters, the company assumed the machine would not be used for composing but for transcribing dictation, and that the person typing would be a woman. The 1800s Sholes and Glidden typewriter had floral ornamentation on the case.[138]

During World Wars I and II, increasing numbers of women were entering the workforce. In the United States, women often started in the professional workplace as copy typists. Being a typist was considered the right choice for a "good girl", meaning women who present themselves as being chaste and having good conduct.[139] According to the 1900 census, 94.9% of stenographers and typists were unmarried women.[140] This also led to an increase in schools and classes for typing in order to prepare for a future job.[citation needed] Moreover, the word typewriter also became associated with the women who typed during the timeperiod.[citation needed]

Questions about morals made a salacious businessman making sexual advances to a female typist into a cliché of office life, appearing in vaudeville and movies. The "Tijuana bibles" – adult comic books produced in Mexico for the American market, starting in the 1930s – often featured women typists. In one panel, a businessman in a three-piece suit, ogling his secretary's thigh, says, "Miss Higby, are you ready for—ahem!—er—dictation?"[68]

The typewriter was a useful machine during the censorship era of the Soviet government, starting during the Russian Civil War (1917–1922). Samizdat was a form of surreptitious self-publication used when the government was censoring what literature the public could see. The Soviet government signed a Decree on Press which prohibited the publishing of any written work that had not been previously officially reviewed and approved.[141] Unapproved work was copied manually, most often on typewriters.[142] In 1983, a new law required anyone who needed a typewriter to get police permission to buy or keep one. In addition, the owner would have to register a typed sample of all its letters and numbers, to ensure that any illegal literature typed with it could be traced back to its source.[143] The typewriter became increasingly popular as the interest in prohibited books grew.[144]

Writers with notable associations with typewriters[edit]

Early adopters[edit]


William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portable sits in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi in Oxford as a museum.
  • William S. Burroughs wrote in some of his novels – and possibly believed – that "a machine he called the 'Soft Typewriter' was writing our lives, and our books, into existence", according to a book review in The New Yorker. In the film adaptation of his novel Naked Lunch, his typewriter is a living, insect-like entity (voiced by North American actor Peter Boretski) and actually dictates the book to him.[146]
  • J. R. R. Tolkien was accustomed to typing from awkward positions: "balancing his typewriter on his attic bed, because there was no room on his desk".[147]
  • Jack Kerouac, a fast typist at 100 words per minute, typed On the Road on a roll of paper so he would not be interrupted by having to change the paper. Within two weeks of starting to write On the Road, Kerouac had one single-spaced paragraph, 120 feet (37 m) long. Some scholars say the scroll was shelf paper; others contend it was a Thermal-fax roll; another theory is that the roll consisted of sheets of architect's paper taped together.[68] Kerouac himself stated that he used 100-foot (30 m) rolls of teletype paper.[148]
  • Don Marquis purposely used the limitations of a typewriter (or more precisely, a particular typist) in his archy and mehitabel series of newspaper columns, which were later compiled into a series of books. According to his literary conceit, a cockroach named "Archy" was a reincarnated free-verse poet, who would type articles overnight by jumping onto the keys of a manual typewriter. The writings were typed completely in lower case, because of the cockroach's inability to generate the heavy force needed to operate the shift key. The lone exception is the poem "CAPITALS AT LAST" from archys life of mehitabel, written in 1933.

Late users[edit]

  • Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati who collects typewriters, edits ETCetera, a quarterly magazine about historic writing machines, and is the author of the book The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion for the 21st Century.[109][40]
  • William Gibson used a Hermes 2000 model manual typewriter to write Neuromancer and half of Count Zero before a mechanical failure and lack of replacement parts forced him to upgrade to an Apple IIc computer.[149]
  • Harlan Ellison used typewriters for his entire career, and when he was no longer able to have them repaired, learned to do it himself; he repeatedly stated his belief that computers are bad for writing, maintaining that "Art is not supposed to be easier!"[150]
  • Cormac McCarthy wrote his novels on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter until his death. In 2009, the Lettera he obtained from a pawn shop in 1963, on which nearly all his novels and screenplays have been written, was auctioned for charity at Christie's for US$254,500;[151] McCarthy obtained an identical replacement for $20 to continue writing on.[152][153]
  • Will Self explains why he uses a manual typewriter: "I think the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head."[154]
  • Ted Kaczynski (the "Unabomber") infamously used two old manual typewriters to write his polemic essays and messages.[153]
  • Actor Tom Hanks uses and collects manual typewriters.[155][153] To control the size of his collection, he gifts autographed machines to appreciative fans and repair shops around the world.[156]
  • Historian David McCullough used a Royal typewriter to compose his books.[157]
  • Biographer Robert Caro has used various models of the Smith Corona Electra 210 to write his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.[158]

Typewriters in popular culture[edit]

In music[edit]

  • Erik Satie's 1917 score for the ballet Parade includes a "Mach. à écrire" as a percussion instrument, along with (elsewhere) a roulette wheel and a pistol.[159]
  • The composer Leroy Anderson wrote The Typewriter (1950) for orchestra and typewriter, and it has since been used as the theme for numerous radio programs. The solo instrument is a real typewriter played by a percussionist. The piece was later made famous by comedian Jerry Lewis as part of his regular routine both on screen and stage, most notably in the 1963 film Who's Minding the Store?.
  • The Boston Typewriter Orchestra (BTO), a comedic musical percussion group, has performed at numerous art festivals, clubs, and parties since 2004.[160][161]
  • South Korean improviser Ryu Hankil frequently performs on typewriters, most prominently in his 2009 album Becoming Typewriter.[162]


Typewriting speed competition
(The Hague, 1954)
  • The 2012 French comedy movie Populaire, starring Romain Duris and Déborah François, centers on a young secretary in the 1950s striving to win typewriting speed competitions.[163]
  • The manga (2015–2020) and anime (2018) Violet Evergarden series follows a disabled war veteran who learns to type because her handwriting has been impaired, and soon she becomes a popular typist.
  • California Typewriter, a 2016 documentary film, investigates the culture of typewriter enthusiasts, including an eponymous repair store in Berkeley, California.

Forensic examination[edit]

Typewritten documents may be examined by forensic document examiners. This is done primarily to determine 1) the make and/or model of the typewriter used to produce a document, or 2) whether or not a particular suspect typewriter might have been used to produce a document.[164]

The determination of a make and/or model of typewriter is a 'classification' problem and several systems have been developed for this purpose.[164] These include the original Haas Typewriter Atlases (Pica version)[165] and (Non-Pica version)[166] and the TYPE system developed by Philip Bouffard,[167] the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Termatrex Typewriter classification system,[168] and Interpol's typewriter classification system,[169] among others.[164]

The earliest reference in fictional literature to the potential identification of a typewriter as having produced a document was by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes short story "A Case of Identity" in 1891.[170]

In non-fiction, the first document examiner[170] to describe how a typewriter might be identified was William E. Hagan who wrote, in 1894, "All typewriter machines, even when using the same kind of type, become more or less peculiar by use as to the work done by them".[171] Other early discussions of the topic were provided by A. S. Osborn in his 1908 treatise, Typewriting as Evidence,[172] and again in his 1929 textbook, Questioned Documents.[173]

A modern description of the examination procedure is laid out in ASTM Standard E2494-08 (Standard Guide for Examination of Typewritten Items).[174]

Typewriter examination was used in the Leopold and Loeb and Alger Hiss cases.

In the Eastern Bloc, typewriters (together with printing presses, copy machines, and later computer printers) were a controlled technology, with secret police in charge of maintaining records of the typewriters and their owners.[citation needed] In the Soviet Union, the First Department of each organization sent data on organization's typewriters to the KGB.[citation needed] This posed a significant risk for dissidents and samizdat authors. In Romania, according to State Council Decree No. 98 of March 28, 1983, owning a typewriter, both by businesses or by private persons, was subject to an approval given by the local police authorities. People previously convicted of any crime or those who because of their behaviour were considered to be "a danger to public order or to the security of the state" were refused approval. In addition, once a year, typewriter owners had to take the typewriter to the local police station, where they would be asked to type a sample of all the typewriter's characters. It was also forbidden to borrow, lend, or repair typewriters other than at the places that had been authorized by the police.[175][176]


Public and private collections of typewriters exist around the world, including:[177]

  • Schreibmaschinenmuseum Peter Mitterhofer (Parcines, Italy)[178]
  • Museo della Macchina da Scrivere (Milan, Italy)[179]
  • Liverpool Typewriter Museum (Liverpool, England)
  • Museum of Printing – MoP (Haverhill, Massachusetts, US)
  • Chestnut Ridge Typewriter Museum (Fairmont, West Virginia, US)
  • Technical Museum of the Empordà (Figueres, Girona, Spain)
  • Musée de la machine à écrire (Lausanne, Switzerland)[180]
  • Lu Hanbin Typewriter Museum Shanghai (Shanghai, China)
  • Wattens Typewriter Museum (Wattens, Austria)
  • German Typewriter Museum (Bayreuth, Germany)
  • Tayfun Talipoğlu Typewriter Museum (Odunpazarı, Eskişehir, Turkey)

Several online-only virtual museums collect and display information about typewriters and their history:

  • Virtual Typewriter Museum[181]
  • Chuck & Rich's Antique Typewriter Website
  • Mr. Martin's Typewriter Museum[182]


See also[edit]


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  • US79265 – Improvement in Type-Writing Machines (the patent that laid the basis for the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer)
  • US349026 – typewriter ribbon, by George K. Anderson of Memphis, Tennessee.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adler, M. H. (1973). The Writing Machine: A History of the Typewriter. London: George Allen & Unwin. OCLC 791210.
    • Adler, M. H. (2023) [1973]. The Writing Machine: A History of the Typewriter. Routledge Revivals (Reprint ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 9781032481135. OCLC 1381545570.
  • Beeching, Wilfred A. (1974). Century of the Typewriter. New York: St. Martin's Press. OCLC 1176993.[ISBN missing] Beeching was the Director of the British Typewriter Museum.
  • Casillo, Anthony (2017). Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing. Photographers: Anthony Casillo and Bruce Curtis; foreword: Tom Hanks. San Francisco: Chronical Books. p. 208. ISBN 9781452154886. OCLC 959698333.
  • Polt, Richard (2015). The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion for the 21st Century. Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press. ISBN 9781581573114. OCLC 907103984.
  • Wichary, Marcin (2023). Shift Happens. Lewiston, Maine: Penmor. ISBN 9798985873900. OCLC 1420907615.

External links[edit]