Published in the Great North Arrow, March 2020: Keyboarding Roots & The Great Typewriter Challenge

- jim Young

”There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” - Ernest Hemingway

I began writing at an early age. I remember one Sunday afternoon pounding away on the keys of my mother’s Underwood typewriter at the dining room table to create a 2 page Newsletter with short stories and jokes mixed in with a hand drawn and hand coloured Woody Woodpecker.

It was a very labourious work of art requiring several passes of the page to type my stories into a 3 column format.

Typewriters were very unforgiving when it came to typos and each mistake had to be painstakingly erased with a special typewriter eraser that would rip the paper more often than not, if great care and attention was not given to the task.

But my newsletter served its purpose of filling my boring afternoon and it didn’t bother me that I was only able to produce the one copy. After all, I had no one to read it anyway, as we lived in the country away from any friends and neighbours. My parents of course feigned interest in my newsletter, but my sisters were not as generous.

Whether it’s publishing a newsletter or just writing in general, the process has become much easier over the years since the computer has come along. Yet there is no image so romantic as a writer sitting down and pounding the keys of an old typewriter in the early hours of the morning with a bottle of rum at hand and a half-smoked cigar sitting in an ashtray beside him. 

Although the first machine to impress letters in paper was invented by Francesco Rampazaettin, an Italian printmaker in 1575, there were many versions of the typewriter invented over the years since then that never really caught on.

American William Burt is most often credited with the invention of the typewriter in 1829 when he patented a machine he named the “Typographer”. Unfortunately the Typographer was slower than writing by hand and none were ever commercially produced.

The first commercially successful typewriter was not invented until 1868 by Christopher Sholes, Frank Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule in the US.

Sholes, soon disowned this version of the typewriter, calling it “something like a cross between a piano and a kitchen table” and sold the patent rights in 1873 for $12,000 (almost $250,000 in today’s value.) 

Even at that time, Christopher Sholes recognized that the typewriter would become a valuable tool as a means for women to “more easily earn a living.”

Until the computer age in the 1980s when word processors began to take over, women accounted for 75% to 80% of all typists.

Writers and reporters were likely the next biggest users although most of them used the two-finger method of typing and were never really considered professional typists.

That women were more often typists was obvious when I attended Business & Commerce courses in high school where typing was a requirement. In Grade 9 in 1967 our class of almost 40 students consisted of just 4 boys. Not that I was complaining.

Our typing teacher, Mr. Wood insisted our hands be held high with our wrists in the air in proper formation with our fingers on the home key.

Mr. Wood once told us he wanted to invent a small device with a bare wire that ran the length of the typewriter keyboard. It would sit in front of the keyboard. Our hands would be required to reach over the wire in order to access the typewriter’s keys.

The wire would be connected to a battery and if we lowered our wrists to touch the wire, we would receive an electrical shock.

While he never invented this device his alternate method to enforce the proper wrist position was to walk up and down the aisles as we typed. If our wrists dropped too low we would receive a whack across our knuckles from the sharp edge of his wooden ruler.

Neither the device nor the ruler would be required today as the correct way to type now is with wrists lowered and resting on either the desk or an ergonomically designed wrist pad.

As part of the IT department at the company I worked at in the 1980s I was charged with the gradual replacement of typewriters with pc computers.

Many of the ladies were professional secretaries with many years of experience. Although they were very set in their ways they were all very excited and open to the change. However, that did nothing to lessen the learning curve. The biggest challenge I faced was to convince them that it was no longer necessary to press the return key as the text neared the right side of the page.

They just couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of “word wrap”.

Word processing has given us so many advantages since the days of the typewriter such as the ability to edit your text prior to printing it; saving your text for future use; printing multiple copies whenever required; making form letters appear more personal; spell and grammar check to improve the quality of the content and so much more.

However the actual process of typing has changed little including the basic layout of the “Qwerty” keyboard that was designed by Christopher Sholes when he invented his typewriter in 1868. 

It would not be difficult for a young person that is familiar with a computer keyboard to go back to using a typewriter. It would likely be easier for them to accomplish that task than it would be to expect them to use an old rotary dial telephone.

There are however, a few minor differences between a modern keyboard and an old typewriter keyboard that I have pointed out along with some general trivia in this little typewriter quiz that I have compiled for your entertainment and education.

See how well you do. (Answers are at the end.)

The Great Typewriter Challenge

  1. What is the longest word that can be typed on a standard keyboard using just one hand, with your hands in the “home” position? 
  2. What is the longest word that can be typed on a keyboard in which you alternate hands every letter using the “touch typing” method? 
  3. What was the purpose of the bell on typewriters? 
  4. Why is the standard keyboard called the “Qwerty” keyboard? 
  5. Why are the letters of a typewriter laid out the way they are?
  6. Correcting mistakes was difficult on a typewriter and erasers designed to help correct mistakes often ripped the paper. What famous 1960s musician’s mother invented “Liquid Paper”? 
  7. Why were early prototypes of typewriters sometimes called the “literary piano?” 
  8. Prior to the 1900s, what were typists called? 
  9. What number did not exist on early typewriters? 
  10. Many older typewriters did not have an exclamation mark (!). How did typists create it? 
  11. What 3 keys were often found on typewriters that are not found on modern keyboards? 
  12. What did the “shift lock” key on a typewriter do that its equivalent the “caps lock” key, on a computer keyboard won’t do? 
  13. The uppercase character for a period (.) on a computer keyboard is the “greater than” sign (>). What was the uppercase character for a period (.) on a typewriter key? 
  14. What are the most used keys on a keyboard? (Hint: the first one is not a letter.) 
  15. What gun manufacturer bought the patent rights for the typewriter to become the first company to mass produce them? 
  16. What is the title and author of the novel credited as having been the first one written on a typewriter? 
  17. Why are capital letters called “uppercase” and small letters called “lowercase”? 
  18. Early typewriters used black ribbons until a ribbon that was half red and half black was invented. What was the most usual purpose for using the red half of the ribbon? 
  19. When is Typewriter Day?
  20. Professional typists use the “touch type” method of typing. What is the name of the method of typing that usually uses just 2 fingers and requires looking for each letter? 

Bonus Question 

    21. What kind of printer is the Typewriter most like?

  1. Inkjet Printer
  2. Laser Printer
  3. Daisy Wheel Printer
  4. Thermal Printer

The Great Typewriter Challenge Answers

  1. “Stewardesses” is the longest word that can be typed on a keyboard using just the left hand.
  2. “Skepticism” is the longest word that can be typed on a keyboard in which you alternate hands every letter.
  3. The bell on typewriters was used to warn the typist that the end of the line was near and would soon require a carriage return.
  4. The first six letters of the top row of letters on a keyboard spell “QWERTY”.
  5. Christopher Latham Sholes designed the keyboard this way to keep letters that are commonly used together, apart, to slow typists and prevent the letters from jamming. The original layout had been alphabetic. Other layouts have since been designed that have proved to be more efficient, but the Qwerty keyboard has become so ingrained, none of the other layouts ever caught on.
  6. Monkee Mike Nesmith’s mother, Bette Nesmith Graham invented “Liquid Paper” originally named “Mistake Out” in 1956. (“Wite Out” a competitor was not invented until 1966.)
  7. When inventing the typewriter, the keyboards were often styled after a piano keyboard. One of Sholes early designs for the keyboard consisted of two rows of black and white keys. The first row was made of ivory and the second row of ebony. The most likely market for the typewriter would be wealthy people, many of whom already had a piano in their home and were familiar with the piano keyboard, making the typewriter less intimidating for them.
  8. Both the machine and the user were called “typewriters” until the 1900s when the users became known as “typists”.
  9. The number “1” which did not exist on most typewriters, had to be typed by using a lowercase “L”. Some typewriters also did not have a zero key. The uppercase letter “O” was used instead. (Count this question as correct if you got either one.)
  10. Since there was no exclamation key (!) on most early typewriters, typists would type an apostrophe (‘) then press backspace to type a period (.) beneath it to create the exclamation mark (!).
  11. The characters ¢, ½ and ¼ were usually found on old typewriter keys but are not included on today’s keyboards. They can be recreated on a computer by entering a combination of keys. Ie: pressing the option/alt key and the number 4 simultaneously will return the cents character (¢) on a Mac computer while holding down the alt key while pressing 0162 will return the cents character (¢) on a Windows computer.
  12. With the “shift lock” key locked into position on a typewriter, pressing any of the number keys would cause the character above the number to be typed on the page. Ie: “@” above the number 2, “#” above the number 3 etc. However with the “caps lock” on, on a computer keyboard, the number will be typed when the key is pressed and you will still need to hold the “shift” key if you want the corresponding character to be printed instead. 
  13. On a typewriter, the period (.) was on both uppercase and lowercase of that key. This allowed the typist to print a period without switching cases when typing in either all uppercase or all lowercase characters.
  14. The most used keys on a keyboard are the “space bar” and the letter “E”.
  15. E. Remington & Sons, firearm manufacturers, became the first mass producers of the typewriter. They purchased their typewriter ribbons from Underwood and when Remington decided to produce their own ribbons, Underwood decided to produce their own typewriters.
  16. “Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain was the first novel written on a typewriter in 1876.
  17. In the early days of printing, all the letters for the printing press were kept in small drawers or cases divided into small compartments for each letter. Traditionally the small letters were kept in the lower case while the capital letters were kept in the upper case.
  18. When used for accounting purposes the red portion of the ribbon was used to indicate credits or negative entries.
  19. Typewriter Day is celebrated on June 23, the anniversary of the granting of the patent to Christopher Latham Sholes in 1868. 
  20. People that are not familiar with a keyboard and have to search for each letter are said to use the “hunt and peck” method of typing.

Bonus Question

3. The typewriter is most like a daisy wheel printer because the impression on the paper is caused by the impact of the character on the daisy wheel striking the ribbon on the paper. 

The Great Typewriter Challenge Score

  • 0-5 You probably don’t know what a “vinyl record is either”.
  • 6-10 Not bad. (This was my score prior to the research I did.)
  • 11-15 You’re probably a former secretary that is older than dirt.
  • 16-20 You’re not fooling anyone. You used Google!


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