The typewriter is undoubtedly one of the most important inventions in human history. It was first envisioned in 1714 as a means of recording important documents without a printing press – but the first commercial machines wouldn’t arrive for another century and a half!
Throughout the 20th century, with the standard QWERTY keyboard now a staple, companies like IBM blazed a trail towards the modern, word-processing computer with mechanical and electrical machines. They would fashion the modern keyboard and allow for the easy recording, correction and reprinting of written information. Here are some of important historical landmarks, beginning over 300 years ago:
[Read more: Tips for cleaning your computer’s keyboard using basic household objects]
Henry Mill patented the first ‘writing machine’ in 1714. It was called a ‘Machine for Transcribing Letters,’ but not much is known about Mill’s idea, as no evidence of it as a working machine exists. However, the intention was “for impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print, very useful in settlements and public records.”
American William Burt built the first Typographer – the precursor to the typewriter – in 1830. His patent was personally signed by then-President Andrew Jackson. Burt was a government surveyor and built the machine to help speed up his work. He used the machine to type letters – but his need for speed remained unfulfilled, as the Typographer used a dial to select letters rather than keys.
Many other attempts followed from other inventors, but the first commercial typewriter would not arrive until 1874. Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden had their ‘Type-Writer’ manufactured by Remington. Sholes also invented the QWERTY keyboard we use today; it featured on his machine, which wrote in capital letters.
The first popular typewriter to bear the familiar design was the 1896 Underwood 1, designed by Frank Xaver Wagner. It featured the four-row keyboard, front key-striking (allowing people to actually see what they were typing) and a shift key allowing for capital letters. It wasn’t the first to offer all of these features, but did so with far superior engineering and, as a result, great success.
By the early part of the 20th century, typewriters were becoming commonplace in workplaces but boy were they creating a lot of noise. The Noiseless Typewriter Company began marketing its first machine in 1917. However, it didn’t live up to its billing and failed to sell well. The clickety-clack lived on.
Electric typewriters, which used a motor to power the typebar, began to gain a little prominence between the World Wars. The first of note was the Electromatic Typewriter. In 1933 IBM bought the company, investing $1 million, and by 1935 the IBM Model 01 arrived as the first successful electrical model. The powered operation allowed for much lighter keystrokes, while keys weren’t as far apart as mechanical counterparts. This meant far less reaching and hammering.
IBM would further improve the design in 1961 with the IBM Selectric typewriter. This model actually looked like a computer keyboard. It featured a rotating golf ball-like type-ball rather than individual type bars (something that had been pioneered in early mechanical machines). The ball could be easily replaced to enable different fonts, italics or languages to be used in the same document. It also eradicated jamming.
In 1964, IBM furthered the design with the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, which was, in effect, the first ever word processor. It introduced a magnetic tape system for storing characters which meant that for the first time documents could be edited and reprinted, rather than having to retype the whole thing. It promised error-free typing at speeds of 150 words per minute.
The 1969 the Mag Card Selectric Typewriter allowed written information stored in Mag Cards to be sent to other machines over voice-grade phone lines. Essentially, this was an early version of email.
IBM remained at the forefront of innovation in the sector and in 1971 brought out the sequel Selectric II. This introduced a correction tape, which eliminated the need for correction fluid: once the new correction key was struck, the correction tape was able to ‘lift’ the ink off the page. The final Selectric III went on sale in the 1980s.
Although countless further innovations, from companies like IBM and Brother, would allow typewriters to remain relatively prominent for another couple of decades, they had already begun the transition into word processors before computers began to invade homes and offices in the 1980s. The last Brother typewriter rolled off the production line in 2012.
Some typewriters remain in use, even today, with many writers choosing them to avoid the distractions of the internet. The great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson stuck with his until his death in 2005 and there’s a great market for antique typewriters.
[Read more: Challenge yourself to our international keyboard quiz]
Photo credit: W A Burt typographer by clbinelli - originally posted to Flickr as W A Burt typographer. Wikimedia Commons
IBM Selectric by Oliver Kurmis Wikimedia Commons
Computers Grade Essays Fast ... But Not Always Well
As schools look to cut costs, more are considering using computers to grade students' writing assignments and to provide writing help. The programs can assess large numbers of papers in seconds. David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images hide caption
As schools look to cut costs, more are considering using computers to grade students' writing assignments and to provide writing help. The programs can assess large numbers of papers in seconds.David L Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Imagine a school where every child gets instant, personalized writing help for a fraction of the cost of hiring a human teacher — and where a computer, not a person, grades a student's essays.
It's not so far-fetched. Some schools around the country are already using computer programs to help teach students to write.
There are two big arguments for automated essay scoring: lower expenses and better test grading. Using computers instead of humans would certainly be cheaper, but not everyone agrees on argument No. 2.
Les Perelman, director of the student writing program at MIT, is among the skeptics. Perelman recently tried out a computer essay grading program made by testing giant Educational Testing Service.
"Of the 12 errors noted in one essay, 11 were incorrect," Perelman says. "There were a few places where I intentionally put in some comma errors and it didn't notice them. In other words, it doesn't work very well."
On a scale of 1 to 6, one of the greatest presidents of the United States was only getting 2s and 3s.
University of Akron's Mark Shermis, on a computer's evaluation of the Gettysburg Address
Perelman says any student who can read can be taught to score very highly on a machine-graded test.
That's because software developers build the computer programs by feeding in thousands of student essays that have already been graded by humans.
Then, by identifying the elements of essays that human graders seem to like, the programs create a model used to grade new essays. If human graders give essays with long sentences high marks, for example, the programs will tend to do so, as well. If human graders like big words, the programs will also, say, "manifest a tantamount predilection for meretricious vocabulary."
So, Perelman says, it's possible for students to score an A on a computer-graded essay simply by combining all the elements of an essay that would be scored highly by a human grader.
Of course, if you know the elements of an A essay and are able to combine them, odds are you're already a pretty good writer.
Mark Shermis, dean of the University of Akron's College of Education, recently co-authored a study of nine different essay-grading computer programs. On shorter writing assignments, Shermis says, the computer programs matched grades from real, live humans up to 85 percent of the time.
But on longer, more complicated responses, the technology didn't do quite as well.
"It will not identify the next great American novelist," Shermis says. "But if what you're trying to do is communicate thoughts and ideas in a very straightforward manner, then the technology is actually a wonderful tool."
But not always. Shermis ran the Gettysburg Address through one of the earlier-generation computer grading programs, one usually used to evaluate the writing abilities of college freshmen.
Suffice it to say, Abe did not ace the test.
"On a scale of 1 to 6, one of the greatest presidents of the United States was only getting 2s and 3s," Shermis says of Lincoln's scores. "We were actually very shocked."
A history professor told Shermis he shouldn't worry; the speech is more famous for its contextthan for the actual words themselves.
Still, school officials trying to cut expenses are intrigued by the promise of scoring thousands of student essays in seconds, without the need to hire human graders.
Jeff Pence, who teaches writing to seventh-graders in a Georgia middle school, is already sold on the idea.
The computer graders he uses give students instant feedback on every draft. Pence says there's no way he and his red teacher's pen could do that. And quicker responses, he says, lead to more writing.
"The quantity drives the quality up," Pence says. "It's kind of the old bicycle thing — the best way to learn how to ride a bicycle is to ride a bicycle. And the best way to get better at writing is to write and receive consistent, timely feedback."
Pence says it would be great to have a couple of dozen real, live human teachers reading every student draft. It would also be nice, he says, if his district found the money to hire those extra teachers. But until then, he's holding on to his computer programs.