Today, let's look at typewriters. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I have an odd artifact here.
It's my great-grandfather's letter book -- a bound
volume with only tissue-paper pages remaining. He
once wrote letters, with a dipped inkpen, on
regular paper between the tissues. Before he tore
the letters out and mailed them, he blotted them on
the tissue, leaving copies behind. Here's the fuzzy
imprint of a letter written in 1891:
Gentlemen, Please quote me the expense of
shipping 1 car load of saw dust from your
Why did he use such a crude method?
Well, carbon paper had been around for 22 years, but
you couldn't press hard enough on a dipped pen to use
it. With a typewriter and carbon paper, copying
would've been a cinch; and the typewriter was also
around by then.
A man named Christopher Sholes had started
developing it in 1867. He drew in coinventors, and
together they made improvements. In 1872 they found
a manufacturer in the small-arms maker Remington.
With the Civil War ended, Remington needed a
peacetime product. The first Remington machine came
out in 1874, and by 1878 it had developed into
something very much like the modern manual
typewriter. So why was great-grandpa still using
inkpens and blotter-copies in 1891?
Historian Cynthia Monaco tells us that only 5000
typewriters had been sold by 1880. People loved to
watch demonstrations of the machines in stores. It
was an exciting novelty but not something they saw
any use for in their daily lives.
After all, letter-writing was a Victorian rite --
something done according to rules and conventions.
Good hand-written letters were the mark of a lady
or a gentleman. A typed letter looked like a
printed flyer. Even a backwoodsman was offended
when he got his first typewritten letter. He
replied, "You don't need to print no letters fer
me. I kin read writin'."
Remington did badly at first because he tried to
sell these machines to domestic buyers. When he
finally triumphed it was because the business world
saw the value of the machine. Ten times as many
typewriters were sold between 1880 and 1886 as were
sold in the preceding six years. When my grandpa
wrote his letter to the lumber company in 1891, he
was already behind the times. By then, most small
businesses had at least one typewriter.
Like so many other machines -- like today's word
processors -- the typewriter had to teach us what
it could do after it was invented. After all, we
still like to receive a handwritten note from a
friend; but how long could we survive in today's
business world using handwritten letters and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds