When was the typewriter first invented?
Typing instruments go as far back as the 16th century, but it’s widely regarded that the first typewriters were invented in the early 19th century. Initially developed as a device for those with impaired vision and hearing, some early incarnations were far from the models that were to become so familiar in later years. They consisted of a circular dial that was turned to select the required letter, before a key was pressed to commit the letter to the page.
By the late 1900s, eager inventors across the US and Europe began to reap rewards as more sophisticated designs – complete with the now common ‘QWERTY’ key layout – achieved commercial success and became a common sight in office spaces around the world.
How did typewriters help to change women’s role in society?
Their impact wasn’t limited to the workplace, however. Edinburgh bookshop owner and long-time typewriter enthusiast Tom Hodges is fascinated by the powerful role the machine played in the suffragette movement: ‘I love the social-history side of typewriters, how they were so important in bringing women into the workplace and ultimately gaining the right to vote,’ Tom says.
The important part typewriters played was shared in a 1914 women’s suffrage newspaper via an advertisement with the headline: ‘The soulless little typewriter has done as much toward gaining women’s rights as all the arguments and agitation of centuries.’ Suffrage campaigners offered their well-honed typing skills to the movement, producing vast quantities of literature that enabled sharing of vital voting-equality messages on a mass scale. So, it’s arguable that learning to type was instrumental in the success of the women’s suffrage movement!
By the 1950s, sharp typing skills were in high demand, as retired County Durham secretary Alma Scott remembers: ‘I left school at 14 and went straight into a junior secretary job with a local civil engineering company, while going to night school for formal secretarial qualifications.’ It was a competitive and often unforgiving work environment; typists’ ability was measured by the number of words they were able to type in a minute. Learning to type faster than others could mean the difference between work and unemployment.
Despite the focus on productivity, typing pools, as they were known, became an extended family to many of their predominately female employees, spawning lifelong friendships, informal aunties and godmothers aplenty, as colleagues shared the journey, from fresh-faced junior, through motherhood and, often, all the way to retirement.
How typewriters became collectable items
Analogue typewriters began to be replaced by electronic models from the 1940s, which eventually gave way to personal computers in the 1980s. Yet, far from gathering dust in museums, enthusiasts continue to collect these fabulous pieces of machinery. Tom Rehkopf – aka Typewriter Tom – a retired systems architect and mathematician from Georgia in the US, has been adding to his stash for 30 years. Alongside those he keeps for regular personal use, Tom’s collection (which currently stands at around 400!) includes a steady stream of restoration projects, machines he sells on and others he donates to schools and the entertainment industry – think of those gorgeous machines in period dramas or theatre productions.
Tom’s love is driven by aesthetics rather than nostalgic yearnings or a revolt against all things digital: ‘It’s not an attempt to romanticise the writing experience,’ he says. ‘Typewriters have evolved from being tools to being artefacts, some may even be considered sculptural things.’ And while he does use (some of) his collection from time to time, it’s the beauty of their physical form that truly captures his heart: ‘There’s no need to feel compelled to do anything with it. You could just sit and look at it if you want. I do that a lot.’
Amazingly, the number of collectors continues to grow, thanks largely (and ironically) to the internet and social media, which offer the opportunity to share experiences, trade and marvel with fellow admirers. This, in turn, has provided a forum for a new generation of younger enthusiasts – most of whose parents were probably born after the electronic typewriter’s heyday.
Why Tom Hanks loves typewriters
Yet another Tom, film legend Tom Hanks, star of Saving Private Ryan, Captain Phillips and Apollo 13, is equally as dedicated to the humble machine. He’s been building his own collection of typewriters (100-plus and rising) since his teens and has written about their appeal: ‘Every time you type something on a typewriter, it is a one-of-a-kind work of art.’
Upon hearing about this shared enthusiasm, Edinburgh-based Tom wrote to the American superstar about their shared admiration and received a beautifully typed reply with an opening sentence that would likely impress even the least starry-eyed recipient: ‘Tom Hodges, you are my Hero…’ In fact, such is the Hollywood giant’s love for the machines that the tales in his first collection of short stories, Uncommon Type, are linked by the characters’ use of a typewriter. The actor even developed his own app, which enables users to type their words into a virtual traditional typewriter, complete with authentic clicking sound effects and old-school font.
In a world that can sometimes feel overloaded with a constant feed of digital distractions, perhaps seeking out the simplicity of stamping a stream of letters onto a sheet of crisp, white paper could be the thing to reignite a passion for words.
Curious to learn more about the wonderful world of typewriting?
A font of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm on all things typewriting, Tom Rehkopf is always happy to share his love and recommend the perfect piece to get you started. See typewritertom.com
Get a clickety fix, Hollywood-style, with Tom Hanks’ Hanx Writer app, which can be downloaded via Apple or Android apps. You can also check out his story collection, Uncommon Type, on Amazon or elsewhere to see how Hanks captures the charm of typewriters.
Read more articles in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.