A Necessary Invention

Gerrie Ferris Finger 4Retired journalist for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Gerrie Ferris Finger won the 2009 St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel for The End Game. The Last Temptation is the second in the Moriah Dru/Richard Lake series and the upcoming American Nights will be released in August 2016. She lives on the coast of Georgia with her husband and standard poodle, Bogey. www.gerrieferrisfinger.com

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Where would we be without the venerable, yet nearly obsolete, typewriter? Ever wonder who invented it and what the heck is with the QWERTY letters in the first row? Why not ABCDEF?

“Machine for Typewriting Letters”

So read the patent for the first typewriter. Apparently a concept, in 1771 Englishman Henry Mill filed a patent for an artificial writing machine that impresses letters on a piece of paper. No drawing for it exists.

However, along came Pellegrino Turri in 1808. He built the first working typewriter, at least he’s the first one known to have built one. I would have thought that the invention would come sooner. In 1439 or so, Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe. But that was moveable type, not a letter on a stick called a typebar.

Anyway Turri constructed this first typing machine for his blind lady friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni. Being blind didn’t appear to be a hindrance and later was used as an instrument for the blind.

I learned to type in high school where our teacher taught us to use the “blind” method so that we didn’t watch our fingers tangle as we typed along at thirty words a minute—a slow but steady pace that wouldn’t get anyone a typist job back then, but with practice one could get up to fifty words a minute. Today it is politically correct to call such no-look typing “touch” typing.

The Writing Ball Machine – a hundred years ahead of the Selectric.

Inventors in Europe and the U. S. set about creating a better mouse trap, er, typewriter. Some were a bit more outré than others. The Writing Ball Machine was developed by a Danish pastor, Rasmus Malling-Hansen, in 1870. It looked rather like a mouse trap. A typewriter (both machine and humans were called typewriters back then) had to hover over the keyboard and peck the letters onto paper that is stretched on an arched frame.

Gerrie Ferris Finger Early TypewriterCalled the “First Typewriter”

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter was developed by a man named Christopher L. Sholes, a Milwaukee newspaperman and poet. It used only capital letters. Today it would be called a Shouting Machine!

That brings us to the QWERTY keyboard, which Sholes is credited with introducing. It is still in use on computer keyboards today and dusty typewriters sitting on garage shelves across the globe. So what’s with those letters?

The letters were designed to separate frequently-used pairs of typebars so that the typebars wouldn’t clash. Who hasn’t had that happen? QWERTY or no QWERTY, the S&G was a decorative machine. Some were painted with flowers and birds but it looked rather like a sewing machine. Maybe because it was manufactured by the Remington Arms Co.

Gerrie Ferris Finger Early TypewriterWhile QWERTY is still with us, the S&G typewriter had limited success because of its understroke or “blind” writer—meaning the typebars are arranged in a circular basket under the platen (roller) and type on the bottom of it. So the typist had to lift the carriage to see the work.

Stop the QWERTY Machine!

Alternative keyboards fought a losing battle against QWERTY momentum. S&G sold out to Remington and, as you may know, Remington went on to improve and became a signature name in typewriters.

The effort to create a visible rather than “blind” machine led to methods of getting the typebars to the platen. The Hammond patent came with the two-row, curved “Ideal” keyboard. There is no cylindrical platen as on typebar typewriters; the paper is hit against the shuttle by a hammer. Loyal customers kept the Hammond typing up to the beginning of the word-processor era.

Other machines typing from a single type element rather than those clashing typebars included the Crandall. Pictured here, it looks elegant enough to type on, but it’s probably a trial to get used to. Still, it sure is sleek.

Gerrie Ferris Finger Qwerty MachineDoing the Front Stroke

The Daugherty Visible of 1891 was the first frontstroke typewriter to go into production. The typebars rest below the platen and hit the front of it. With the Underwood of 1895, the frontstroke typewriter grew in popularity. Produced in the millions by the 1920s, virtually all typewriters were “look-alikes”—frontstroke, QWERTY, typebar machines printing through a ribbon, using one bar and four banks of keys.

Gerrie Ferris Finger Daugherty VisibleThe Golf Ball Machine

Underwood, Remington and the like became the standard until the IBM Selectric hit the market in the early 1960s. Instead of the “basket” of individual typebars that swung up to strike the ribbon and page in a traditional typewriter, the Selectric had a type ball element that rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking. The Selectric also replaced the traditional typewriter’s moving carriage with a platen that stayed in position while the type ball and ribbon mechanism moved from side to side.

Gerrie Ferris Finger Golf Ball Machine

Social Implications and the Typewriter

Researching for this blog, I was surprised to learn how quickly the typewriter changed women’s lives. By 1878, typing was taught in a New York school. A year later women were working as secretaries when the New York YWCA offered typing instruction to ladies. Men need not apply. Or none would.

The melding of secretary to typewriter and woman to secretary caught on. Secretaries, typing pools, stenographers became a fixture in government offices and businesses in the United States.

John Harrison wrote in his Manual of the Typewriter, “The typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers. They seem to be made for typewriting. The typewriting involves no hard labour and no more skill than playing the piano.”

I can attest that playing the piano helped me type in excess of 80 words a minute. After ten years of classical piano lessons, my father said it was only right that I should have profited in some way by all the money he shelled out. I have. My male colleagues at the newspaper, with their two-finger typing, watched with envy as I clicked out my 20 inch stories with the speed of a Selectric. No pedal needed.

Skillfully submitted on my Microsoft QWERTY,

Gerrie Ferris Finger

American Nights: Released August 17, 2016

6th in the Moriah Dru/Richard Lake series.

American NightsAmerican Nights

By Gerrie Ferris Finger
ISBN-10: 1432832212
ISBN-13: 978-1432832216
Five Star Publishing
Series: A Moriah Dru/Richard Lake Mystery
Hardcover, 308 pgs
August 17, 2016, $25.95
Genre: Mystery

Saudi Arabian prince, Husam al Saliba hires Dru, a PI specializing in tracing missing children, to find his missing wife, Reeve Cresley and daughter, Shahrazad (Shara).

At a dinner to introduce himself and his story to Dru—and Richard Lake, her lover and an Atlanta police detective—he strikes Dru as charming but unbelievable. He tells of falling in love with Reeve, of turning his back on his possible ascendancy to the power structure in the kingdom for the woman he loves. He also talks of his king’s disapproval of him marrying and siring an infidel. But then he says his family wants him to return, marry his betrothed Aya and get in line to be an heir to kingship. Confused Dru thinks she’s fallen into a fairy tale. After all the prince is known to be a great storyteller and is partial to reciting tales from the Arabian Nights.

The investigation had just begun when Reeve’s parents, Lowell and Donna Cresley, who do not seem disturbed that Reeve is missing with Shara, are killed. That brings the Atlanta police into the case.

A U. S. resident, Prince Husam is a partner in a New York law firm. Reeve is a scientist who works for NASA. The couple spend little time living together. Husam goes off to Paris to see his Saudi princess, Aya, and Reeve is in an affair with Thomas Page. As Dru remarks, nobody in this tale is faithful. Then she finds out all have something to dreadful to hide.

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6 thoughts on “A Necessary Invention

  1. That’s a fascinating history. I’ve kept my old Hermes manual, just in case we lose all electricity forever. I learned to type on my mother’s 1930 Underwood, which she used till the 1960s. And now we have ergonomic keyboards that look like the Crandall, shown above. I hate to think where we’d be without keyboards.

  2. That’s so interesting. I really had no idea. And, imagine, when I first started working as a clerk, we had typewriters … no computers. I’ve gotten completely spoiled with making mistakes on my PC and being able to just hit the backspace, fix my error, and go on my merry way. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

  3. Great post. I learned touch “blind” typing in high school and am grateful for that skill. I can hit 75 wpm on a good day. And before typewriters, all secretaries were men! But since the male secretaries refused to use typewriters, women took over that position. Now we’ve come full circle as most men type their own letters etc. on computers and there’s no need for the old “typing pool.” How times change.

  4. What fun to revisit my long history with typewriters. My much older sister taught me to touch type when I was in jr. high, for which I never thought to thank her. I also failed to keep track of the few manuals I owned over the years. When I wrote my first book at age 25–a town history–I talked a local stationer into lending me a Selectric for that volunteer endeavor. Then I bought the same model for my graduate thesis and felt so proud of eventually collecting several balls for it, each with a different font! The typewriters I owned lasted lots longer than the many computers I’ve had since (I’m now on my 6th + a laptop). But after 28 years of experiencing no resistance from hitting computer keys (or piano keys) my fingers have gotten weak, but I really pity the hand ailments that will face our younger generations, especially eventual arthritis of the thumb joints. Thanks for all your research, Gerrie.

  5. This book sounds eclectic ; foreign affairs, legal and police procedural all interwoven together—a good read. Ahhh, the wonderful typewriter and an historical perspective! I do remember using them in high school and when I first began college; I was not a very good typist and always made an error at the bottom of the page. Thank you for reminding us of this precursor to our modern keyboard.

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