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A Brief Chronology of the Typewriter

This page has no pretensions to be a complete history of the typewriter, but it simply aims to put in order some of the dates in its history that are the most significant to issues I have discussed at various places in these pages. Thus, it is primarily focused on techical advances in the development of the typewriter, but only those that came after the typewriter was "invented" in its modern form and was already a commercial success.

This information came from a number of pages on typewriter collecting scattered around the Web.

I will try and provide links to a few of the most outstanding pages on this topic:

ozTypewriter, the blog of Robert Messenger

"To Type, Shoot Straight, and Speak The Truth...", the blog of Theodore Munk

The Classic Typewriter Page


The Mystery of "Pica" and "Elite" - Solved at Last!

As is well known, a Pica is a unit of measure used by printers, corresponding to 12 points, or about one-sixth of an inch. In general, printers apply this unit to vertical measure; if they wish to refer to the same unit of distance running along a line of text, to avoid confusion they will call it a pica em, as an em space is square in shape, and so an em space belonging to pica type will take up that same amount of space in a horizontal direction.

The most common sizes of letter printed by typewriters are termed "Pica" and "Elite", the former being 10 characters per inch horizontally, or 10 pitch, and the latter being 12 characters per inch horizontally. Both of these sizes are printed at six lines per inch.

From this, one might indeed complain that the name "Pica" for 10 pitch typewriter type is something of a misnomer. It did not seem to me to be particularly remarkable how that might have come about; presumably the original size of type for a typewriter was 10 pitch, but the type was named after its height rather than its width - and then, when narrower type of the same height came along, it was given a new, distinctive, name, and the old name for the original size of type now distinguished the larger size, even though in its original meaning the name referred to its height and not its width.

But I did not know where the name "Elite" came from, although such a name would be a natural one to apply to a smaller size of type, and no obvious answers came up initially in my search.


Gradually, however, I found further information that allowed me to piece together the story.

A catalogue dating from around 1886 by Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, the company that owned the rights to the Remington typewriter at that time, illustrated the styles of type available for the Remington Standard 2 typewriter: Italic, Pica, Medium, and Great Primer. Medium and Great Primer appeared to be at a wider pitch than Pica. So at that time, the printer's term "Pica" had become the name of a typeface for typewriters.

No smaller-sized type was illustrated there for that typewriter, although one of the styles for their other model with capital letters only may have been smaller in size than 10 pitch.

In the December 1891 issue of American Printer and Lithographer, also titled "The American Bookmaker", illustrations of printers' type that looked like typewriter type appeared, including one from the Keystone Type Foundry called "Ten Point Elite Typewriter". This is the earliest reference I had been able to find to the use of the term "Elite" in connection with the print from a typewriter.

I also remember running across a mention in 1893, I believe in a magazine for stenographers, of a Remington typewriter fitted with elite type.

But finally I came across another catalog from Remington. It dealt with the Remington Standard 6 typewriter and its accessories, and so it must have dated from 1896 or later. While it used the term "elite", though, it did not do so in its modern sense.

This catalog, "The Remington Typewriter and its Accessories", listed the following styles of type with which the Remington Standard 6 could be provided:

 1) Pica                         10-068
 2) Medium Roman                 10-080
 3) Large Pica                   10-078
 4) Great Primer                  9 1/4 - 088
 5) Large Great Primer            8 1/2 - 098
 6) Elite                        12 1/3 - 059
 7) Elite                        10-059
 8) Elite Italic                 12 1/3 - 062
 9) Large Italic                  9 1/4 - 079
10) Small Italic                 10-068
33) Gothic                       12 1/3 - 063
34) Medium Large Gothic           9 1/4 - 074
11) Double Gothic                12 1/3 - 070
14) Extra Large Double Gothic     8 1/2 - 103
12) Vertical Script              10-080
13) Small Vertical Script        12 1/3 - 065
82) Ronde Script                  9 1/4 - 090

The longer numbers associated with each typestyle are not always distinctive: 10-068 applied to both Pica and Small Italic, and 10-080 to both Medium Roman and Vertical Script.

It seemed to me that the first part of this number was likely to be the pitch of the typestyle, and, indeed, when I looked again, I saw that this was explitly stated after the specimens of the type styles in a table of "letter spaces".

And so it seemed to me that, very likely, the mystery was solved. Sometime after 1886, but before 1891, Remington introduced a style of type which it called Elite, which was the most popular one that printed at a smaller spacing, twelve and one-third characters to the inch (or thirty-seven characters every three inches), and that name came to be applied to the spacing rather than the typestyle.

That other manufacturers would choose a simpler figure of 12 characters per inch, which would eventually become the standard of the industry, would not have been surprising either, just as it was not surprising that the names of styles of printing became applied to their sizes.

As the catalog giving this information dates from 1896, this conclusion does involve a degree of surmise, but it seems to me to be much the likeliest sequence of events.

The Chronology

1873: The original Remington typewriter. This one only typed in capital letters. Famously, Mark Twain had one of them. This is the one that inflicted QWERTY on the world.

1878: The Remington Standard 2. This typewriter had both upper and lower case, and thus in some senses could be termed the first "modern" typewriter, although as we will see, some later models might have a claim to that title.

It had a lever, rather than a key, for the shift lock function. When that lever was not engaged, capital letters and other shifted characters were obtained with a shift key, the "upper case" key, in the modern position of the left shift key; when it was engaged, the "lower case" key, in the modern position of the backspace key was available to obtain individual unshifted characters.

Although it affected all the keys, not just the letters, and it involved two different shift keys, I still found it somewhat reminiscent of the action of the Caps Lock key on the modern IBM PC and its successors.

1883: The Horton typewriter is patented. This typewriter was a Canadian invention, and is recognized as the first typebar typewriter with visible writing. It was of the double keyboard type.

1884: The interchangeable element Crandall typewriter becomes available, slightly preceding the Hammond. The element on this typewriter both rotates and moves vertically to select an individual letter, thus resembling the Selectric more than the Hammond or the Blickensderfer, which moved in one direction to shift, and in the other direction for the specific letter. The first model of the Crandall, but not any subsequent models, also featured proportional spacing, on a four-unit system similar to that later used with the Vari-Typer.

1884: The interchangeable element Hammond typewriter becomes available (patented in 1881).

1889: The Maskelyne typewriter, an early model offering proportional spacing, first becomes available; it was produced for several years. The company was named for the typewriter's designer who was also the famous stage magician of that name.

1891: The Daugherty typewriter became available. This was the first typewriter that combined the four-bank QWERTY keyboard arrangement with visible typing. However, the typebars were long, leading to poor character alignment.

1891: The first Densmore typewriter was introduced; initially, its main special feature was a ligher touch due to the use of ball-bearings. Also, the shift key moved the type basket instead of moving the platen, as became the case generally for modern manual typewriters.

1893: The Blickensderfer typewriter becomes available. This interchangeable element typewriter was quite popular for a while, and a wide variety of elements for different languages was provided for it.

1895: The first Oliver typewriters were sold. These typewriters provided visible typing, and the quality of the text produced was fully satisfactory. Thus, the Oliver typewriter made visible typing a reasonable alternative.

However, the Oliver typewriter did have some limitations. The typebars struck the paper from above. In order to allow the typing point to be visible, they were divided into two groups, to the right and the left of it, but this meant that the typist's view of the line being typed was blocked except for the last few letters that were typed.

The design also meant that the keyboard had to be a three-bank three-shift one instead of a four-bank two-shift one, because the latter would have led to excessively long typebars. On the other hand, there was the benefit that the typebars could strike the paper forcefully, making the Oliver particularly suited to typing mimeograph stencils.

1897: The Densmore 4 typewriter was introduced, which apparently was the first to incorporate the following two modern features: the backspace key, and a shift key on each side of the typewriter so there was one for each hand.

1898: The decimal tabulator is introduced by Remington, originally called the Gorin tabulator, after its inventor.

1900: The Underwood Model 5 (preceded by other Underwood front-stroke typewriters from 1895 or so) was a reliable front-stroke typewriter with a light touch. From this point onwards, most manual typewriters subsequently designed and sold would tend to follow the same general design as this highly successful design.

1902: Blickensderfer introduces the Blickensderfer electric typewriter. Despite having a light touch comparable to modern electric typewriters, it was not successful.

1905: Yost introduces the Imperial type style as an option for its typewriters, producing a style of printing somewhat more like printing than conventional typewriter type. Later, Remington would introduce a type style of this kind named Clarendon, and in 1910 Oliver would come out with Printype.

IBM, much later, made similar typestyles available for the Selectric: Bookface Academic, Adjutant/Delegate, and (in some markets) Diplomat. These were previously available for their typebar electric typewriters. European typewriter manufacturers achieved more popularity for their typestyles in this category, both Congress from Olympia and Imperial from Adler.

Of course, while one could get elements for the IBM Selectric that had the appearance of conventional typewriter type, the most popular typestyles for the Selectric were Prestige Elite and Courier. Courier, as well as Scribe, was a typewriter typestyle that was also similar to an "Egyptian" printing type, just as conventional typewriter type was, but in a number of subtle ways was made more stylish and elegant. Prestige Elite, also available in a larger version as Prestige Pica, on the other hand was something that moved from typewriter type in the direction of a print-like character, but instead of going all the way to something that fully imitated printing except for still being monospaced, it went only part way, which could have accounted for its huge success.

Since the classic form of typewriter type had wide serifs in order to achieve a reasonable appearance in monospaced printing, it stands to reason that an improved typeface that still retained such features of typewriter type that helped to improve the appearance of monospaced text, rather than one that fully imitated printer's type which did not have that issue, and thus which incorporated no features to deal with it, might be preferable.

1906: The Corona folding typewriter, a three-bank typewriter that was the first portable typewriter.

1908: Remington finally introduces the Model 10, accepting the victory of the visible front-stroke typewriter.

1925: The Remington Electric typewriter is introduced. This typewriter was not successful, but it worked on the same principle as later typebar electric typewriters, using a roller to catch the typebar mechanism when a key was depressed.

1929: North East Electric, the supplier of the electric motor for the Remington Electric, makes its own electric typewriter, the Electromatic. This model was a success.

1933: IBM purchases North East Electric. However, the purchase did not include the rights to a version of the Electromatic that worked automatically from paper tape; these first went to Computer Controls Inc., and were later purchased by Friden, and that machine was known as the Flexowriter.

1944: IBM brings out the proportional-spacing Executive typewriter.

1947: The Coxhead DSJ, derived from the Hammond typewriter, adds the ability to type with proportional spacing, and to produce justified columns on a second typing. The machine would later be known as the Vari-Typer.

1961: IBM brings out the Selectric, the first single-element typewriter that could hold its own in competition with the descendants of the Underwood Model 5.

1964: IBM produces the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, sometimes abbreviated MT/ST. This records the text of documents on small reels of perforated magnetic tape. Although Flexowriters had previously been used for allowing typed documents to be edited, this machine is often considered to be the first word processor.

1966: IBM introduces the Selectric Composer, a machine based on the Selectric mechanism, but which is designed to produce typeset copy. Its feature set was similar to that of the Coxhead DSJ, except that the Selectric Composer could have only one element installed at a time, while two type shoes could be placed in a Vari-Typer (as the Coxhead DSJ was later known). However, the proportional spacing of a Vari-Typer was based on a four-unit system, while that of the Selectric Composer was based on a nine-unit system: thus, the Vari-Typer produced copy which, like that from an IBM Executive typewriter, although being proportionally-spaced, could not be mistaken for conventional typeset copy, while the copy produced by a Selectric Composer was very close to regular typesetting in appearance.

1967: IBM produces the Mag Tape Selectric Composer, applying the technology of the MT/ST to typesetting.

1969: IBM introduces the Mag Card Selectric, which edits documents on magnetic cards the same size as an 80-column punched card.

1971: IBM brings out the IBM Selectric II typewriter, for which dual-pitch operation, switching between pica and elite operation with a lever, is an available option.

1972: IBM produces the Mag Card Executive typewriter, which offers proportionally-spaced typestyles on a Selectric ball element. These used a spacing unit of 1/60", and the device could also type in Pica or Elite. The proportional typestyles were the same ones that would be later offered on the Electronic Typewriter 50, 65, and 85.

Incidentally, although the Mag Card Executive used a seven-unit system of proportional spacing, instead of a nine-unit system as did the Selectric Composer, the gradations of spacing between letters in its typestyles were not coarser than those of Composer fonts. Instead, it compromised by further limiting the maximum width available for a character than the Selectric Composer already did: if one compares the widths of letters in Selectric Composer fonts to those of fonts used in normal typesetting, for example Monotype Times Roman, the letters M, m, and W should have been eleven units, rather than nine units, in width on the Selectric Composer to be in proper proportion.

1972: The first daisywheel printer, the Diablo HyType, is commercially available.

1973: IBM introduces the IBM Correcting Selectric II, which adds the built-in capabilty to use a correction tape.

1974: IBM introduces the IBM Memory Typewriter, which edits documents in an internal memory instead of using magnetic media.

1974: Olivetti introduces the Olivetti Lexikon 82 typewriter. This portable typewriter has a moving carriage, but uses a typeball element similar in appearance to, but not compatible with, the typeball of the IBM Selectric.

1975: IBM applies the technology of the IBM Memory Typewriter to the similar in appearance IBM Electronic Selectric Composer.

1976: The Diablo 630 daisywheel printer, which was very successful and popular, was introduced.

1976: Olivetti introduces the Lexikon 90 office typewriter, which is a single-element typewriter like the Selectric, but which uses an element different in appearance (nicknamed a "pineapple" instead of a "golfball") and which has a moving carriage: this typewriter actually came out after, and not before, the Lexikon 82, and thus apparently the difference in the appearance of the element was not due to the need to avoid any IBM patents.

1977: The Xerox 9700 laser printer is offered for sale. This is a large and expensive device, for use with mainframe computers. It printed at 300 dpi, providing letter-quality output.

1978: Vari-Typer direct impression machines based on the Hammond typewriter cease to be produced. The company continues to make phototypesetting equipment.

1978: IBM produces the Mag Card Selectric Composer.

1978: IBM introduces the IBM Electronic Typewriter, the first device to use a modified Selectric element with 96 instead of 88 characters. Of the two initial models, the Model 50 offers proportional spacing, using many of the typestyles previously offered on the Mag Card Executive.

1980: IBM introduces the Displaywriter, an 8086-based word processing system for smaller offices.

1980: Brother Industries produces its first electronic office typewriter using a daisywheel.

1984: IBM introduces the Wheelwriter and Quietwriter, daisywheel and thermal transfer ribbon typewriters.

1984: Hewlett-Packard introduces the LaserJet, based on a laser printer mechanism from Canon. This was the first desktop laser printer for personal computers, and printers of this type, as they became even more affordable, would end up doing to the typewriter what the pocket calculator did to the slide rule.

A Comment in Defense of the IBM Selectric Typewriter

This chronology outlines items which I find to be of importance, given my views on the subject of the typewriter.

On at least one typewriter collecting site, I found sentiments deploring the fact that after the Underwood Model 5 came out, most typewriters by other manufacturers eventually became very similar to it. It's not unreasonable to find the lack of diversity unfortunate, from that point of view. But it also needs to be remembered that typewriters weren't made to be antiques for people to collect; they were made to help people get work done in offices, and, later, at home as well.

Having typed on a Vari-Typer myself, I know that there simply is no comparison between one of those and a conventional manual typewriter in good repair; the latter allows easier and faster typing by far. And, thus, while one can regret the passing of the Hammond and the Blickensderfer and so on, one can't really blame anyone for the fact that it didn't happen differently.

And, while one could interpret some early IBM advertisements for the Selectric typewriter as suggesting they originated the single-element typing principle, one must take into account that they could not have used the names of competing firms in promoting their product. After all, in 1961, the Vari-Typer, a descendant of the Hammond, was still being made.

Numerous books as well as web sites on typewriter collecting have been somewhat critical of IBM in this matter, essentially denying that the IBM Selectric typewriter manifested much in the way of originality.

And I strongly disagree with this view.

Given what the Underwood No. 5 did to the typewriter landscape, it should be clear what the nature of the accomplishment for which IBM deserves credit is: they had both the technical competence and the courage to take what were undoubtedly improvements in the typewriter, both single-element typing and proportional spacing, that were tried in the past, but were discarded due to an inability to match the quality, reliability, and performance of the Underwood No. 5; and to make these improvements available again, but in an embodiment sufficiently practical to use that they would be acceptable to a marketplace that insisted that any typewriter, to be acceptable, would have to be as good as the Underwood No. 5 in the areas where it excelled.

That is what the Selectric had that the Blickensderfer didn't. That is why it succeeded when other single-element typewriters were long-forgotten antiques and curiosities. It faced an age that didn't value the ability to change type styles enough to give up speed and convenience, and it met the challenge offered by the demands and habits of the business world on its own terms, without excuses.

I do think that a Crandall or a Hammond or a Blickensderfer is deserving of an honored place on the shelves of a typewriter collector, but so is a Selectric, even if it is less of an antique and thus easier to find. It has its place in history, and it is also deserving of honor.

Another Note on Names

As we have seen, the ordinary typewriter type that printed at ten characters to the inch was termed "pica type", as it was printed at six lines to the inch.

Elite type prints at twelve characters to the inch... even if, as noted, originally it had a somewhat finer spacing of twelve and one-third characters to the inch. Although it, too, is printed at six lines per inch, given that its size is in a ratio of 10:12 to pica type, one could think of it as, therefore, being 10 point type, the old name for which was "long primer".

In addition to Pica, we've encountered a typewriter type style called "Great Primer". This was the old name for 18 point type. Originally, Remington produced type of this name at a pitch of 9 1/4 characters per inch; much more recently, type so named was provided by IBM for its electric typewriters at 9 pitch.

A 9 pitch typewriter typestyle puts three characters in the space of four characters of a 12 pitch typewriter typestyle, so instead of being 1 1/2 times as large as 12 point pica type, it's 1 1/3 times as large as 10 point elite type. The old name for 14 point type is English, which is obviously confusing; one could use, instead, Gross-text, Mittel, or Mediaan, I suppose. Or Augustijn, according to another source, although I see that more commonly given as a name for 12 point type. And there isn't an old name for 13 point type, let alone 13 1/3 point type. Ironically, Remington did have, in addition to Great Primer, another type style named Medium, but that was also 10 pitch rather than 9 1/4 pitch.

In doing a web search to find if anyone ever gave a name to smaller-sized type, such as 16 pitch type as was provided by a Royal manual typewriter I once owned, or the more common 15 pitch type that many daisywheel typewriters could produce, I found two names.

One was Mikron, which is actually the name of a specific typestyle produced by Olivetti.

The other was agate, found from several sources, and apparently all copied from the same place, perhaps a Wikipedia entry. Agate, though, is the old name for 5 1/2 point type. Since 15 pitch type is two-thirds the size of 10 pitch type, it is presumably 8 point type, for which the old name was Brevier. As a brevier or breviary is a type of religious book, thus creating an uncomfortable or sensitive association, while the use of the word "agate" in connection with printing is familiar from discussions of newspaper classified ads (although they are printed in a somewhat larger type size than 5 1/2 points these days), this misnomer is understandable.

If a lesser inaccuracy is acceptable, Minion is 7 points, and Bourgeois is 9 points. However, an alternate English-language designation for 8 point type is Small Text, which should be acceptable.

However, while my web search turned up examples of the claim that this size of type was named agate, it turned up no actual examples of such a usage, so, at the moment I tend to regard this not as a misnomer but as an Internet legend: somebody said something, and others quoted it without checking to see if it had a basis in fact.

Still, for some, "agate type" is simply synonymous with "small printing", without worrying about how small, so perhaps someone somewhere did apply the term "agate" to 15 pitch type. However, a search failed to turn up even so much as, say, a column for InfoWorld by John C. Dvorak about printers with such a usage, let alone a brochure from a daisywheel typewriter maker so doing.

And the old name for 11 points is Small Pica, with Philosophe as an alternate, which might approximate the size of 11 pitch type, which IBM and others offered for those who wanted something smaller than 10 pitch Pica, but found 12 pitch Elite to be a little too small.


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