Typewriters fall into five classifications. The standard typewriter was the first kind manufactured. It was too heavy (15-25 lb or 5.6-9.3 kg) to move often, so it was kept on a desk or typing table. The standard typewriter had a wider platen (a rubber-covered, steel cylinder for absorbing typing impact) in the carriage (the part that moved the paper into place) that could hold oversized forms. The portable manual typewriter was smaller in size, lighter in weight, and equipped with a carrying case for easier movement and storage. Portable typewriters were popular for home and school use.
Electric typewriters were heavier than standard machines because of their motors and electrical parts. Electric machines made typing easier because less effort was needed to strike the keys. Electric portables were smaller and lighter than desktop machines, and they had carrying cases with storage for the power cord.
The most recent kind of typewriter to be produced—the electronic typewriter—eliminated many of the disadvantages of both standard and electric machines. Circuit boards made the electronic typewriter much lighter (about 10 lb or 3.7 kg) than other models. Personal word processors (PWPs) were closely related to computers.
Writing machines were built as early as the fourteenth century. The first patented writing machine was made in England in 1714 but never built. The first manufactured typewriter appeared in 1870 and was the invention of Malling Hansen. It was called the Hansen Writing Ball and used part of a sphere studded with keys mounted over a piece of paper on the body of the machine.
Christopher L. Sholes and Carlos Glidden developed a machine with a keyboard, a platen made of vulcanized rubber, and a wooden space bar. E. Remington & Sons purchased the rights and manufacture began in 1874. To avoid jamming typebars with adjacent and commonly used pairs of letters, Sholes and Glidden arranged the keyboard with these first six letters on the left of the top row and other letters distributed based on frequency of use. Their "QWERTY" system is still the standard for arranging letters.
The first Remington typewriter only printed capital letters, but a model made in 1878 used a shift key to raise and lower typebars. The shift key and double-character typeface produced twice as many characters without changing the number of typebars. By 1901, John Underwood was producing a machine that had a backspace, tab, and ribbon selector for raising and lowering the ribbon.
George Blickensderfer produced the first electric typewriter in 1902, but practical electric typewriters were not manufactured until about 1925. In 1961, International Business Machines (IBM) introduced the Selectric electric typewriter. From about 1960 to 1980, the standard typewriter industry in the United States withered away. The IBM Selectric II debuted in 1984, but IBM stopped making electric models in favor of the electronic Wheelwriter in the early 1990s. By this time personal computers were becoming more popular.
By the late 1990s, most of the manual typewriters supplied to the United States came from three firms. Olympia in Germany makes standard portables, Olivetti in Italy makes a standard office typewriter and two portable models, and the Indian firm Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company is the largest producer of manual typewriters.
Carrying cases can be made of wood, steel, or plastic. Steel is the material used for most of the parts in standard models. Typewriters use hundreds to thousands of moving parts, and cold-rolled steel is one of the most reliable materials.
The platen is a steel tube covered with a rubber sleeve. The rubber sleeves are made of a special form of rubber from the "buna-N" family. Glue is used to adhere the rubber sleeve to the platen tube.
The keys were molded of plastic in a two-shot, injection-molding process that made white characters with the surrounding key tops in other colors. From the 1970s forward, a pad printing process has been used to apply the characters in ink and coat the keys with a durable "clearcoat" finish.
Mylar (plastic) ribbons with ink on one side are used to transfer the typeface. These ribbons are contained in plastic cartridges that could be thrown away.
Miscellaneous materials are also used. These include glue, paint, chemical solvents and other fluids, zinc and chromium for plating some components, and acetic acid for building protective coatings on some parts.
Typewriters have several parts that allow them to produce typed papers; the keyboard being the most obvious. Each key is connected to a typebar that lifted a typeface to strike the paper. Each typeface has upper and lower case forms of a letter or numbers and symbols. The assemblage of typebars and typefaces is called the typebasket.
Mylar (a plastic produced in very thin ribbons and coated with ink on the platen side) typewriter ribbon uses ink to transfer images on the typeface to the paper. Its alignment parallels the platen and the paper, and ribbon guides raise the ribbon to print and then lowers it.
The platen stops the typeface but allows enough force to the paper for the image to print. The carriage is a box-like container in the upper, rear part of the typewriter that carries the platen, the lever for carriage returns and line spacing, guides to help direct and grip the paper, and the paper itself. The paper is inserted in a feed rack (paper support) in the back of the carriage, supported and curved up toward the typing surface in a paper table or paper trough, and held against the underside of the platen by two feed rollers.
An escapement (a device that allows motion in only one direction and in precise steps) controls the motion of the carriage to the left after each character was typed. A mainspring in the escapement transmits energy to move the carriage on ball bearings.
To move the paper up after a line of typing is complete, a line-spacing lever rotates the platen toward the rear of the typewriter. The lever is also the carriage-return that disengages the escapement and pushes the carriage back to the right for the new line. Knobs on the ends of the platen are turned so the paper can be removed.
When raw materials are delivered to the typewriter fabrication plant, the receivers log in the materials and compare them to blueprints and specifications provided by design and manufacturing engineers. The quality control engineers also use a number of instruments for determining that parts and materials are acceptable such as verniers (short sliding rulers), micrometers (also called micrometer calipers) that are vice-like gauges for measuring thickness precisely, and height gauges to confirm dimensions.
When the typewriters are complete, a final quality control check is done by actually using each machine to test its performance. Each typewriter is checked for binding keys, print quality, advance of the ribbon, and movement of the carriage, among many other performance characteristics. Its appearance is careful examined for any flaws that might lead to rusting.
Most of the waste is generated during fabrication. Steel wastes such as the "skeletons" left after stamping or punch pressing and turnings and bushings (fragments) from screw-machine production of rivets and other parts are sold to salvage dealers, or melted and reused.
Plastic parts are used increasingly, plastic runners and rejected parts are also recycled. In the fabrication plant, they are reground, and these plastics were added to new batches of plastic. The percentage of reground plastic in a batch varied depends on the criticality of the part and the decision of the manufacturing engineers.
A large volume of rubber dust was produced when platens were ground round. The dust was carefully controlled and placed in collection boxes. The cooled dust was taken in the collection boxes to landfills. Machine exhaust was hooded to the outside. Minor quantities of other materials were disposed or recycled. Inked ribbons and cassettes containing Mylar ribbons were sometimes rejected and were also disposed in landfills.
Typewriters have a minor future in the Western World because computers have replaced them almost completely. Some businesses still need typewriters for limited uses, and many people find typewriters more convenient for single or small tasks.
Standard, electric, and electronic typewriters do have some future remaining in developing countries, and manufacturers in Asia and Europe supply this market. Brother makes typewriters in Japan, China has two or three factories, and Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company in India is the largest typewriter producer in the world. The Hermes, Olivetti, Olympia, and Royal brands are made in one or two factories in Europe. At the peak of standard typewriter manufacture, Smith Corona dominated production with a 54% market share; the company no longer makes its own typewriters, but, as a small supplier, it purchases them from a factory in Korea.
Rare use of typewriters today and their distinction as truly magnificent machines has made them popular and given them a respected future as collectibles. Antique dealers and other specialists buy and sell rare models on the Internet, and collectors exchange information using newsletters and web sites.
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Davies, Margery. Woman's Place is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers 1870-1930. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
Linoff, Victor M., ed. The Typewriter: An Illustrated History. Dover Publications, 2000.
Frazier, Ian. "Typewriter Man." The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 280, no. 5 (November 1997): 81-92.
Groer, Annie. "True to Type." The Washington Post (3 May 2001): HOI.
Gillian S. Holmes