Christopher Latham Sholes (1819-1890) has been called the "Father of the Typewriter." Although he did not invent it, he did develop the first practical commercial machine. Sholes also developed the Qwerty keyboard that is still in use today.
Sholes was born on February 14, 1819, near Mooresburg Pennsylvania. On his mother's side, his ancestry could be traced back to John and Priscilla Alden, the famous Pilgrims. His paternal grandfather had commanded a gunboat during the Revolutionary War. Sholes' father, Orrin, served in the War of 1812 and was rewarded for his service with a gift of land in Pennsylvania. In 1823, when Sholes was four, Orrin moved his family to Danville, Pennsylvania, were he ultimately apprenticed all four of his sons to become printers.
At the age of eighteen, Sholes went to Green Bay, Wisconsin to work for his brothers Henry and Charles, publishers of the Wisconsin Democrat. Two years later, when Charles bought a share of the Wisconsin Enquirer, Christopher Sholes moved to Madison to assume the post of editor. The next year, at the age of 21 and at his brother's bidding, he moved to Southport, Wisconsin, and founded the Southport Telegraph, a weekly newspaper. Southport was a new town on the Lake Michigan shoreline south of Madison, (incorporated as the city of Kenosha in 1850.) Sholes soon became owner and publisher of the Telegraph.
Settling in Southport, Sholes married Mary Jane McKinney in 1840. He and his family lived there until 1857. Sholes published his paper and became involved in politics, both reflecting his drive for social reform. The Telegraph took stands against capital punishment and war, and supported the growing movement for women's rights. A fight between two members of the territorial government in Wisconsin resulted in one member being killed in the council chamber. Sholes was an eyewitness and reported the incident in his paper. His article was reprinted across the country and Charles Dickens related the tale in his American Notes as an example of law making in the United States.
Sholes was a firm believer in mass communication. He felt that people could not reach their full potential until they could be brought closer together in thought. Sholes approved of every new way of communicating that came along. The Telegraph would give free ad space to any itinerant teacher of handwriting-shorthand or longhand-that came to Kenosha.
Politically, Sholes was a good Democrat. He supported the platform of his party, which included the condemnation of the anti-slavery abolitionists. He was rewarded with an appointment to local postmaster. In 1848, Sholes was elected to the first senate of the newly admitted state of Wisconsin. He then served as city clerk in Kenosha, and returned to Madison as an assemblyman.
In January 1853, Sholes met James Densmore, an editor from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Where Sholes was mild-mannered and poetic, Densmore was aggressive and possessed a temper. He did not make a good first impression on Sholes. Yet the two men shared many political views and quickly formed a partnership.
The first collaboration of the two men was the Kenosha Daily Telegraph. By using the wire news services of the Associated Press, they would have enough content to fill a paper every day. In the first year of their publication, they had taken on new causes. Sholes had undergone a change of heart and now supported the work of the abolitionists and the congressional candidate of the newly formed Republican Party.
Sholes traveled to Kansas, where a struggle had broken out after the United States Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was determined that the residents of new territories would decide the question of slavery. Sholes returned to Wisconsin and the newspaper business. This time, he worked at Republican papers, the Milwaukee Free Democrat and then the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and News. He visited the Wisconsin soldiers in the Union Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. In this capacity, Sholes represented the governor of Wisconsin, but paid his own expenses. He supported the Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln throughout the war. As a reward, Sholes was given a federal post, serving as collector of customs for the Port of Milwaukee in 1863.
Despite his long career in journalism and politics, Sholes was an inventor at heart. Tired of addressing newspapers to subscribers with pen and ink, he invented a machine that would do the task using preset type and a treadle, variations of which were in use until the advent of computers. While living in Milwaukee, Sholes would often spend time at C.F. Kleinsteuber's machine shop, which was a meeting-place and workshop for amateur inventors. Working with another printer, he developed a machine that consecutively numbered railway tickets and bank notes. Sholes was trying to adapt it to automatically number the pages of books. Another amateur inventor in the workshop, lawyer Carlos Glidden, was working on a mechanical plow. Both Sholes and Glidden were interested in the work others were doing on typing machines. As an outgrowth of Sholes' page-numbering device, the two began work on a typing machine of their own.
The idea of a machine that would help people communicate with clarity must have appealed to Sholes. Many typing machines had come before. William Burt created the first typing machine in 1830. Fifty more people invented or re-invented machines before Sholes began his work in 1867. A plan for a machine in Scientific American inspired Sholes, but it seemed to be unnecessarily complex. The design called for a cast plate containing all the type. The plate would be adjusted to bring the desired letter into position and a hammer would force paper against the plate.
It took Sholes only a week to determine the basic premise of his typing machine. A single letter of type, carved onto a short metal bar could be made to strike upward against a glass plate. The first model came out with the help of Glidden and Samuel Soule, a draftsman and civil engineer. It only typed the letter "W", but its basic design would become the trio's first typing machine.
The three men set to work to make a complete machine. After much trial-and-error, a workable prototype was built by the fall of 1867. The design required that the paper be placed between the type and the inked ribbon, so only tissue paper could be used. After selling their first one, Sholes, Glidden, and Soule tried to raise enough capital to mass-produce the machine. Sholes typed a letter to his old partner James Densmore, who recognized the possibilities of their invention. He bought into the group and began promoting the machine. Densmore requested that the design be simplified so that it would be cheaper to produce.
Densmore spent a thousand dollars to manufacture a handful of machines before deciding that it was unworkable. The concept was good, but the execution, which had been largely in the hands of Soule, was faulty. He decided to try again, but with Sholes alone. Densmore requested that the machine be able to accommodate thicker, higher-quality paper. This led Sholes to develop a moving cylindrical carriage to hold the paper, and the inked belt, or ribbon, that would be located between the type and the paper.
Despite these changes, Sholes maintained his original concept of the type striking upward against the carriage. This differed from the front striking machines that would later become the standard. The great benefit of the front-striking typewriter was that the operator could see the type as is was being printed, with no delay.
Aside from his efforts to develop a machine that the public would accept, Sholes was also responsible for designing a typewriter keyboard. The earliest typing machines used many different styles of keyboards: circular or in rows with separate keys for upper-and lower-case letters. Almost all arranged the letters in alphabetical order, from a-to-z. As Sholes experimented with his new machine, he found that placing the keys in alphabetical order caused his machine to jam too often.
Many legends surround Sholes' development of the keyboard. It is not laid out based on the frequency of use of certain letters, nor are the most used letters placed under the strongest fingers. The most frequently quoted story, that it is based on the arrangement of the letters in the printers' type-case-in the days when every printed page was set individual letter and symbol by hand-is false. Most likely Sholes changed the order of the keys as he created prototype after prototype of his machine, trying to eliminate the most frequently occurring jams, when two nearby keys would meet. The layout kept frequently combined letters separated mechanically, which limited the number of possible collisions between type bars. It probably also slowed the rate a good typist could reach, further eliminating possible jams.
Ultimately, Densmore sold the machine to Philo Remington, American manufacturer of arms, sewing machines and farm implements. Even after Sholes' hours of experimentation, the engineers and mechanics at Remington were able to improve on the machine. They solidified the layout of the keyboard into something very close to what is still used on all alpha-numeric keyboards in most English-speaking countries today.
This has come to be known as the Qwerty keyboard, after the first six letters at the upper left on the keyboard. A comparison of keyboards from around the world shows that most countries using the Roman alphabet (A, B, C, etc.) or some variation of it use basically the same layout of keys. Over time, typewriters advanced technologically. The mechanical aspects were supplemented first by electric assistance and finally by electronic devices. It was no longer necessary to use the key positions to keep the machines from jamming. Many people have developed more efficient keyboards, both easier to remember and better able to divide the work between the right and left hands. However, these have all been commercial failures. The public has refused to adopt them, preferring the Qwerty design instead.
Sholes finally agreed to sell his rights to Yost and Densmore in 1880. History does not record the price, but it was not very high. Sholes was tired of the machine, and was ready to invent something else. He took advantage whenever possible to turn his rights into ready cash, believing until almost the end of his life that the typewriter would never be a success.
When sales of the Remington typewriter increased, Sholes accused Densmore of cheating him. Densmore replied that Sholes had probably made more money than he did. Once Sholes totaled his receipts from the typewriter for the period of 1872 to 1882, it came to more than $25,000. Densmore had not realized that much in that period, although he was to make much more in the coming years.
Sholes was quite proud of one social consequence of the typewriter—it opened office careers to women. Previously, business schools only trained men as secretaries. Since men were reluctant to give up communicating and corresponding in elegant handwriting, it became common for typewriter manufacturers to train women as typists. They frequently offered both machine and operator as a package to prospective clients. Women, who had been locked out of the office, suddenly had their foot in the door.
Sholes spent the end of his life in ever-increasing obscurity. He continued to tinker with various inventions, but none saw the light of day. Even as he neared his death in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 17, 1890, his bed was often crowded with models of inventions.
Because he had not associated his name with either the machine or its producers, he was forgotten. Whenever articles were written about the history of the typewriter, Sholes was only mentioned in passing. Often his innovations were judged to be unoriginal or hindrances. Yet he must be credited with contributing to the design of the typewriter. Even now, as typewriters fall into disuse, his legacy lives on. Remember him the next time you wonder "Who designed this stupid keyboard?"
Adler, Michael H., The Writing Machine, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1973.
Beeching, Wilfred A., Century of the Typewriter, St. Martin's Press, 1974.
Bliven, Bruce Jr., The Wonderful Writing Machine, Random House, 1954.
Current, Richard N., The Typewriter, University of Illinois Press, 1954.