How the typewriter changed the way we communicate

Stuart de Rozario Knowledge share
17 Aug’18

The sound of the mechanical typewriter is a familiar one to many of us, who grew up to its distinctive percussive clack and chime. It’s also the sound of a bygone era; a machine handed its redundancy by computers, tablets and mobile devices.

The fall of the typewriter is just one moment in a long history of changes to how mankind has used written communication, from cave paintings to letter carving, and handwriting to texting. Mankind simply couldn’t have existed as we know it without mark making and visual communication.

The Evolution of the Typewriter

The printing presses of Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 1450s, using the beautiful but regimented Blackletter typography, laid the foundations for the initial concepts for a moveable type machine for individual use. In 1575 the Italian printmaker Francesco Rampazzetto invented the “scripture tattile,” a machine to impress letters onto paper. 

Later, in 1714 the Englishman Henry Mill filed a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.” Thus, the concept of a typewriting machine was born, and the continuation of printing and evolution of typography shifted into a new age. 

The very first device to use the term “Typewriter” is believed to have been built by Italian Pellegrino Turri in 1808, designed to help blind people communicate with one another. Turri’s invention allowed carbon paper (used as ink) to be imprinted directly onto paper by using small keys attached to metal arms tipped with raised characters. When a key was pressed, the arm would strike the carbon paper and make a printed letter on the larger paper. Carey Wallace’s 2010 novel The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is based on Turri’s love affair with the Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. 

In 1829 William Burt patented the idea of characters arranged around a rotating frame, and over the next 40 years many machines were developed by inventors trying to create the distinctive typewriting device we’re familiar with today.

It was Christopher Latham Sholes, an American printer and publisher, who patented the first typewriter, assisted by Carlos Glidden and Samuel W. Soule from Milwaukee. Sholes licensed his patent to Remington & Sons of Ilion, New York; and in 1874 the Remington Model 1 became available to the market. Sholes also developed the keyboard, and also invented the QWERTY keyboard; with the Remington to thank for the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” as a test for potential touch typers.

Tracing Typewriter Typefaces

So in what way did the typewriter improve typography and communication? What do we know of the letterforms that made these impressions from the typewriter machine? Over time it was found that Gutenberg’s favoured Blackletter printing presses hindered legibility, and the Gothic style was cast aside. New technological printing advancements from 1500-1800 such as etching, lithography or rotary press allowed typographers and print makers to produce sublime hairline metal punches, changing letterforms and design styles forever. As the typewriter became more and more popular, typewriter manufacturers designed their own fonts – different type machines produced multifarious results, and typefaces evolved in shape and style.

The early incarnations of the typewriter were often cumbersome and fairly laborious. They also had typographic limitations in terms of capitalisation and basic punctuation, due to the keyboard consisting of an alphabetic arrangement of 36 keys with no lowercase or numerals. The zero and one numeral were omitted as the capital “i” and “o” could be used in their place.

Originally the basic layout comprised two rows of 18 characters on the top line (3 5 7 9 N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z) followed by the second row of 18 (2 4 6 8 . A B C D E F G H I J K L M.)

The Remington Model 1 used a monospaced sans serif Grotesque style. This letterform paved the way for a new type style for the machine in contrast to the denseness of Blackletter, moving towards a clean, simple font style allowing the typewriter a consistent mono linear fixed width. The Remington Model 2, developed in 1878, became the first typewriter to have a Shift key that enabled the use of lowercase letters, numerals and extended punctuation such as the question mark, parenthesis, ampersand and percent symbol.

Letter spacing on typewriters are rigid and set to a restricted width, so each character fills the defined space, creating what’s known as monospaced fonts. They became the norm as the limitations of the typewriter only allowed the machine to move along at a set measurement. Text setting of this kind disrupts harmony, balance and readability; but monospaced fonts set a new style of letterform.

Letterforms took on a new shapes as the narrow “i” and “j” were expanded to reduce wide counter spaces, and the wide “m” and “w” were narrowed to fit accordingly. Monospaced fonts tend to have a generous x-height that almost created a unicase appearance. The printing of small type on these machines tended to appear blobby and rounded due to the irregular ink spread which gave an inconsistent spotty tone.

A robust slab serif style replaced the plain Grotesque font, and became the unofficial standard for typewriters. Companies produced their own set of Pica fonts, a monospaced font that fit ten characters to the inch or an Elite 12 characters per inch, which would indicate to customers how large or small (dense) the letter would appear on the page. Gradually, typewriter typefaces were created that were used for advertising, telegrams and financial correspondence. Italic or script fonts were also developed for more informal purposes.

Around the mid-20th century typewriter manufacturers like Olivetti, Remington Rand and IBM set font specimens showcasing an array of slab serif, modular grid styles, Grotesques and non-Latin fonts as the typewriter boom truly entered the 20th century. With the introduction of the electric typewriter, type designers A.M Cassandre, Imre Reiner, Wim Crouwel and W.A Dwiggins worked on expanding the library.

Proportional type was impossible on the mechanical typewriter, but created a flurry of new designs as it was introduced during the development of the electric typewriter. New printing devices such as the IBM’s “golf ball” and Xerox’s “daisy wheel” in the electronic machines enabled typists to write using more than one font on the same machine, creating richer typographic possibilities and styles. Non-Latin fonts were also expanded as machines were distributed globally.

Slave to the rhythm

The typewriter is undoubtedly one of the most incredible and important inventions in human history. We have a lot to thank the “new fangled writing machine”, as Mark Twain described it, for. When it was first envisioned it enabled faster individual communication, and served as a means of recording important documents without a printing press. The same could be said for today’s laptops or mobile phones, and if I pause for a moment and listen, I can still hear a TAP – TAP – TAP but softer, lighter and more subtle sound.

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