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Happy 155th birthday, typewriter!

If you have this old friend, today is the perfect day to dust it off!


The first person in history to submit a novel in typescript to a publisher was Mark Twain in 1883, who wrote his first book with the Remington No. 1, the first mass-produced typewriter. It was Christopher Latham Sholes who patented it on June 23, 1868.

The history of the typewriter has uncertain origins, but we can attribute it to an Italian invention. The earliest attempt dates back to 1575 and belongs to Francesco Rampazetto, a publisher active in Venice who designed a mechanical device with raised characters that allowed blind people to communicate with each other. Piero Conti, from Pavia, in 1823 created the tachygraph, from the Greek "which writes quickly," and a few years later Giuseppe Ravizza, a lawyer from Novara, built in 1846 a writing harpsichord, patented in 1855, of which a model is preserved at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan. In South Tyrol, Peter Mitterhofer, a carpenter with inventor skills, built between 1864 and 1869 five models of typewriters, the first two in wood, and walked from Parcines to Vienna to deliver his invention to Emperor Franz Joseph. However, the monarch and his experts did not grasp the commercial importance of the prototype, which instead crossed the ocean, exactly to an American journalist who later became a senator, Christopher Latham Sholes. Sholes, eager to participate in the era of invention, began working on a machine to automatically number the pages of books.



His model featured a keyboard similar to that of a piano with keys made of ebony and ivory, arranged in two rows. The letters were uppercase, and the numbers "zero" and "one" were missing, considered replaceable with the letters "O" and "I". While working on it, Sholes noticed the poor functionality of the alphabetical arrangement of letters and decided to adopt a different order that separated the most commonly used pairs, thus preventing the numerous jams that were frequent at the time, as the machines were not fast enough to keep up with the speed of writing. It was called QWERTY, from the sequence of the first six letters from the left, and it is still the same sequence found on many digital keyboards, even though the keys no longer actuate levers. The patent for the Sholes & Glidden TypeWriter, after several failed attempts at commercialization, was acquired by Remington & Sons, which renamed the machine Remington No. 1 and began serial production in its sewing machine department in 1873.

Initially, the QWERTY only wrote in uppercase letters and "blindly for the typist," because the character struck under the roller and not in front: any typing errors were discovered at the end of the page by raising the roller. Remington initially rejected the patent of the German engineer, Franz Xavier Wagner, who had solved the problem by introducing frontal typing, so Underwood, another American company already producing inked ribbons, acquired the patent and began producing more advanced models.

This is the scenario that Camillo Olivetti encountered in America in 1893 when, following his teacher Galileo Ferraris, he attended the first demonstration of public lighting in Chicago, by Thomas Alva Edison. Captivated by the new inventions, Olivetti spent two years in the electrical engineering department at Stanford University. In the following years, he brought the production of measuring instruments and then typewriters to Italy, presenting the first Olivetti at the Universal Exhibition in Turin in 1911.



The first machines produced were large and heavy, but there was immediately a demand from users - writers and journalists at the forefront - to carry them on travels and business trips. Thus, the portable typewriters were born, lighter, more comfortable, preferably "cute," small, and compact in their cases. Meanwhile, a predominantly female workforce developed around typewriters, which originally represented one of the first opportunities for emancipation from domestic "duties." The first typist was Lilly, the daughter of Senator Latham Sholes, to whom her father entrusted the testing of the prototypes.

But it wasn't just for small tests. Typewriters accompanied the writers of the twentieth century in the writing of some of the most beloved works of literature. The Portable No. 2 from 1878 already had uppercase and lowercase letters, with a shift key and a QWERTY alphanumeric keyboard. The Remington No. 5 from 1886, used by Agatha Christie, still had blind typing. Smaller and lighter, the Hammond No. 1 was used by Lewis Carroll. The Underwood from 1893 was the first typewriter with visible writing, and it was used by Luigi Pirandello, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf. In 1906, the Royal No. 1 made its appearance, with a flatbed design, used by George Orwell. The Olivetti MP1, designed in 1932 and available in various colors, was used by Marguerite Duras, but the most successful in the 1950s was the portable Lettera 22, used by Cesare Marchi, Enzo Biagi, Indro Montanelli, Leonard Cohen, and Cormac McCarthy.

Today, almost no one uses it anymore, but it has become a cult object to the extent that, for certain models, ribbons can still be found. In Italy, they are exhibited in some museums including Milan, in the Typewriter Museum, in Trani at Palazzo Lodispoto, and in Bolzano at the Peter Mitterhofer Museum.



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