How do you write your term papers? Are you a touch-typist? A proficient thumb-texter? A voice-to-text dictator? Or do you prefer longhand? I’m currently getting used to a new laptop, and it is driving. Me. Crazy. (Grrrrr.) This is a periodic ordeal in the life of a novelist, and it has been going on since Mark Twain became the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript for publication (1883’s Life on the Mississippi). Coming October 4, Myrtle & Co. will be introduced to the joys of typing in In Myrtle Peril. Let’s take a look at the advent of this timesaving technology.
Office essentials for more than a century, typewriters had a rocky start and it took some Victorian ingenuity to turn early writing machines into the workhorses that preceded the digital age.
Although typewriters became ubiquitous, familiar items of household and office machinery, they are surprisingly complex, and early models came in a variety of designs before settling into a familiar standard.
The quirky QWERTY keyboard, still used on most English keyboards—even virtual ones—is a consequence of the technological challenges to create a device capable of transcribing thoughts as swiftly as the authors composed them. Early designs had issues with keys struck in rapid combination, like S-T, getting tangled up and jamming.
Early typewriters were pricey luxury items, retailing around $125 in the U.S. in the 1870s, roughly equivalent to a top-of-the-line cellphone today. But the increase in workplace efficiency and the opportunities afforded to skilled typists revolutionized office life.
The need for inexpensive but skilled typists opened up opportunities for women in business, who would dominate “typing pools” throughout the coming century. Learn more about the role of female typists in the 20th century workforce here.
Although most corporations no longer employ large staffs just for the job of typing, the ability to use a keyboard is as vital a skill as it was over a century ago. In high school in the early 1990s, the only course my parents insisted I take was typing (it was called “keyboarding” then, and I learned on a computer.). Thanks, folks!
Although largely overtaken by ever more efficient and modern equipment, the vintage typewriter still has enthusiasts worldwide (including, famously, actor Tom Hanks). We keep our family’s 1902 Underwood typewriter in an honored place in our living room, and websites such as The Classic Typewriter Page celebrate the history of one of the devices that transformed the 20th century.
However you do it, happy typing!