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The Non-Fiction Reader Magazine

Editor's Page
The early Remington typewriter
Christopher Latham Sholes:
A Champion For Women Office Workers

Richard L. Servis Jr

Can anyone imagine an office without women? Strange as it seems in our day, before 1881 few women if any, were allowed to work in offices. Men had the prestigious privilege of working as secretaries and stenographers. Women who tried to penetrate the exclusive professions were soon driven away. The first recorded female typing school was the New York YWCA. Its first students graduated in 1881. Heroines for womens' rights, although securing voting rights and other breakthroughs, did not free women from the drudgery of housework and servitude. The typewriter at least allowed women to enter the field of business. Women had a "natural" touch for the typewriter, and mastered it quickly. Once exposed to a business atmosphere, they soon learned how business was conducted, and many became a part of management.

The first patent for a Writing Machine was issued by the British Patent Office by Queen Anne to Henry Mill dated January 7, 1714. The patent was for "An Artificial machine or Method for the Impressing or Transcribing Letters, Singly or Progressively one after another as in Writing, etc...."
No evidence has been shown that the finished machine truly existed. From the time of Henry Mill until 1924 more than 315 typewriter designs were patented.

Christopher Latham Sholes is credited with inventing the first "practical" typewriter, July 14, 1868. He named it the "Type-Writer." Little did he know at the time it would become the permanent name for a writing machine. The machine was cumbersome to say the least. It was a box-like affair, with wooden keys, a clock mechanism drive, and a flat tabletop structure. The sheet was placed facing down and backed up with a sheet of glass. A giant version of what we call a "daisy wheel" was guided into position by wires. The typeface struck the underside of the paper out of sight of the operator. The ribbon was made by the operator by cutting strips of silk, soaking them in ink, and hanging them out to dry.

By 1873 Sholes had re-designed the typewriter to resemble what many of us have seen and called "antique." Sholes made over 50 modifications from that of his original model. Mark Twain was among the first to buy one of the first Remington models and was believed to be the first author to submit a manuscript printed from a typewriter.

Have you ever felt that the typewriter keys were really in the wrong places? Have you ever felt the "touch system" was not balanced for both hands to do equal amounts of work? Have you felt the "home row" was not truly designed to accommodate the most frequently used letters?  If so, your suspicions were justified.

Sholes had two partners when his typewriter was nearing the final stages of invention. His partners were Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Soule'. Sholes and both of his partners were two-finger typists, and never dreamed anyone would ever want to use both hands. In addition--Sholes was left handed. The touch system would not be developed until many years later by Frank E. McGurrin, a Grand Rapids law clerk.

The reason the typewriter keys were located as they are even today was strictly mechanical. The semi-circular nesting place of the old typewriter "slap" keys was referred to as the "basket." Original placement of the most often used keys would cause the slap key arms to lock up, so they were separated in the basket as far away from each other as possible. There was no other reason for the keys to be located as they are!

In 1943 the "standard" keyboard was proven not to be as efficient as typists were led to believe. Using the the Dvorak keyboard, a typist typed 108 words per minute. The Dvorak keyboard was copyrighted in 1932 by Lieutenant Commander August Drove of the U.S. Navy. The option for the Dvorak keyboard has been available ever since. Unfortunately, secretaries trained on the standard keyboard are reluctant to re-train themselves. Typing schools rarely include the Dvorak method in their curriculum.

The Drove research showed that the reaching the upper row was necessary 52% of the time on a standard keyboard, compared to only 22% on a Dvorak keyboard. Reaching the lower row from home row is necessary 16 % of the time on a standard keyboard, but only 8% on the Dvorak. Some fingers are stronger, and Dvorak places the most work on those stronger fingers. Drove designed the Dvorak keyboard for the right hand to accept 56% of the labor, and the left hand 44%. Whereas home row is supposed to be the most commonly used, it is actually used only 32% of the time on a standard keyboard, compared to 70% on a Dvorak. In his day, Drove claimed that $10,000,000 to $20,000,000 could be saved every year in the United States, if management converted to the Dvorak system. Anyway,... we skeptics of the standard keyboard and touch system can legitimately say, "I told you so!"

One fact remains--the typewriter did prove to be a boon to the world of business, and women were prime candidates to exploit the new contraption to improve their position in the world.

Christopher Sholes was proud of what his machine had done for women. He once said, "I don't know about the world, but I do feel that I have done something for the women who have always had to work so hard. This will enable them to more easily earn a living." In his declining years, he commented, "Whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter, it is obviously a blessing to mankind, and especially to womankind. I am glad I had something to do with it. I builded it wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it."

Sholes was never wealthy, and during a time when he needed money he sold his royalty rights for $12,000 to James Denser, his financial backer during many stages of the typewriter project. Finally, after faithfully promoting Sholes Type-Writer for so many years, Denser owned something of value. Densmore asked for, and received, a royalty arrangement which netted him $1,500,000 for the remainder of his lifetime. In our day of high speed word processors and computers, we still use what is still basically a standard keyboard from an "antique" Sholes "Type-Writer." We may be more than 100 years late but,.........................thank you Chris!

Copyright 1987, Richard L. Servis Jr.
Approximately 1106 words



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