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Tom Hanks’ Letters and Beyond: 151 Yrs On, the Typewriter Survives

On 23 June, World Typewriter Day, pay humble homage to the vintage machine that inspired your modern Qwerty keypad!

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The typewriter was the most powerful symbol of anti-Nazi resistance in the movie <i>Schindler’s List</i>. (Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/SchindlersListMovie?ref=br_rs">Facebook/Schindler’s List</a>)

(On World Typewriter Day, The Quint is republishing this story from its archives. It was originally published on 23 June 2015.)

Some things are beautiful because they are archaic. Rendered obsolete by time, they emerge like phoenixes out of the ashes only to be viewed as objects of history. The typewriter is probably at the top of that huge pile of relics that are striking, archaic – quaint, even.

Yet, even if it were to one day bow out of the world, it would probably leave satisfied knowing it had influenced one of the most enduring modern inventions for our fingers – the QWERTY keypad!

Did you know that the keyboard you use – for your smartphone, your Blackberry, your Kindle – was first invented over 150 years ago, by a small-time newspaper editor in the relatively nondescript town of Milwaukee?

On June 23 – aka, Typewriter Day – take a look at the machine that grew beautifully out of protective layers of history into the 21st century

Of Typewriters that Looked like ‘Pincushions’

The concept of a typewriter dates back at least to 1714, when Englishman Henry Mill filed a rather vaguely-worded patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.”

But the first typewriter proven to have worked was built by the Italian Pellegrino Turri in 1808 for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano; unfortunately, we do not know what the machine looked like, but we do have specimens of letters written by the Countess on it. Carey Wallace’s 2010 novel – The Blind Contessa’s New Machine – spoke eloquently of her new gift.

Vintage typewriters lived on through much of the 1900s. (Photo: iStockphotos)
Vintage typewriters lived on through much of the 1900s. (Photo: iStockphotos)

It is obvious from the above fact, and several other pieces of documented evidence, that the typewriter was originally intended as a machine for the blind. It gradually gew to mean much, much more to the American society.

Numerous inventors in Europe and the U.S. worked on typewriters in the 19th century, but successful commercial production began only with the “writing ball” of Danish pastor Rasmus Malling-Hansen (1870).

According to The Classic Typewriter blog – a page you absolutely must visit for its patronage of ‘strange and beautiful’ writing machines, the typewriter of 1870 “looked rather like a pincushion”.

Nietzsche’s mother and sister once gave him one for Christmas. He hated it.
The Classic Typewriter
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How your Qwerty was Invented – in 1868!

The first commercially successful typewriter – that improved upon all the other typing machines of the past – was therefore, the one invented by Sholes. Christopher Sholes, well-versed with the workings of print anyway (courtesy of being a newspaper editor) invented the first practical modern typewriter in 1866 – with the financial support of his business partners Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden. Five years, dozens of experiments, and two patents later, Sholes and his associates produced an improved model – similar to today’s typewriter.

The Sholes typewriter had a type-bar system and the universal keyboard was the machine’s novelty. However, if there was one problem, it was that the keys jammed easily. To solve the jamming problem, another business associate, James Densmore, suggested splitting up keys for letters commonly used together to slow down typing. This became today’s standard “QWERTY” keyboard.

The Qwerty keypad owes its origins to Christopher Latham Sholes. (Photo: iStockphotos)
The Qwerty keypad owes its origins to Christopher Latham Sholes. (Photo: iStockphotos)

The S&G – Sholes & Glidden typewriter – as it is famously called – was a rather decorative item, boasting of painted flowers and decals. One might even say it looked like a sewing machine!

Sholes had little patience for marketing, however, and decided to sell the rights to his friend Densmore. Densmore in turn, sold the rights to THE rifle manufacturers of the day – Philo Remington.

The keyboard was slightly modified by E. Remington & Sons. In fact, did you know that the final design for the Remington typewriter was selected because one could type out the word ‘Typewriter’ using the first row of letters? This impressed customers as salesmen quickly typed out the word for them – and sales skyrocketed!

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The Writer, the Pop Culture and the Typewriter

Did you know that Mark Twain, who enjoyed the use of new inventions, made vigorous use of the Sholes & Glidden typewriter. He was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher!

Twain could hardly have moved around much with the enormous Sholes & Glidden machine, but the next model – the improved Remington typewriter – was a portable one. This was used exhaustively by author George Orwell (can’t you imagine an angsty Orwell lashing out 1984 anecdotes?) The same machine was also used by Agatha Christie.

Tom Hanks reportedly loves typewriters – as he made clear when he co-developed an app that emulates writing with them. Taking his fascination to a whole new level, he recently signed a deal to publish short stories that were inspired by the machine.

Tom Hanks makes no excuses for his enthusiastic love for typewriters, posting pictures aplenty on his Facebook page.
Tom Hanks makes no excuses for his enthusiastic love for typewriters, posting pictures aplenty on his Facebook page.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Tom Hanks)

The Quint in fact had published a story of how Tom Hanks had written a personal note of welcome to our very own Irrfan khan, when the latter appeared on the sets of Inferno (based on Dan Brown’s book of the same name). Take a look at the beautifully worded letter below and tell us if you can’t feel the rattling of typewriter keys fed in by Hanks!

Tom Hanks’ tyewritten note of welcome to Bollywood Actor Irrfan Khan.
Tom Hanks’ tyewritten note of welcome to Bollywood Actor Irrfan Khan.

The Great Gatsby – both the movie and the book – made ample use of the Vintage Remington Portable. Toby Maguire, playing Nick Carraway in the glitzy, glamorous movie set in the 1920s, is seen using it while being treated for alcoholism in a sanatorium.

Nowhere has the typewriter been more iconic – more a symbol of trepidation, of apprehension – as in the movie, Schindler’s List, where Ben Kingsley changes the course of history and a billion Jewish lives, at the instructions of Liam Neeson.

This list … is an absolute good. This list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.
Ben Kingsley, Schindler’s List

Indeed, the power and urgency of names typed on sheets of paper has never seemed so real.

And look no further than everyone’s favourite Mad Men, if pop culture is what gets you going. The blockbuster show, set in 1950s America, makes ample use of the sleek and beautiful vintage typewriter.

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It is clear that Christopher Latham Sholes inspired a long and popular line of history. His machine went through vigorous stages of evolution and adulteration. The hands of the printer, the typist, the olden days’ computer user, the millennial Apple loyalist – all fiddled around with the QWERTY. Little do they know that they owe their origins to one man’s inventive genius, who considerably lightened the labours of shorthand reporters everywhere.

One imagine Sholes would be happy to see how far his invention has come in year 2015. We are at least glad he lived to hear himself rendered the pleasing and well-deserved compliment – ‘father of the typewriter’.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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