Zoomed In

The typewriter went from the office to the niche market

| Author / Editor: Barbara Stumpp / Simone Käfer

The IBM Selectric was the first ball-head typewriter.
The IBM Selectric was the first ball-head typewriter. (Source: creative commons (Oliver Kurmis [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons) / CC0)

The first electric typewriter was presented at the Hanover Trade Fair in 1957. But the idea is much older: Henry Mill had the idea patented in 1714.

Originally, typewriters were thought of as writing tools for visually impaired people. The first one to be produced in larger quantities, in 1865, was the Skrivekugle by Rasmus Malling Hansen. It was a kind of precursor to the electric typewriter, because some of the models had electrified carriage movement. The most famous user of this machine was Friedrich Nietzsche, who paid 400 marks for it, double his professor’s pension. He thought it was good that he felt forced to condense his ideas, because writing by hand was so tiring.

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In 1902, George Blickensderfer brought the first electric typewriter onto the market in the USA. Technically, it was decades ahead of the competition, but unfortunately there was no single live voltage, so his invention could not stand the test of time. Twelve years later, James Fields Smathers built his electric typewriter. In 1923, there was a contract with the Northeast Electric Company. This was because the company was looking for new markets for its electric motors and Smathers could provide one with the electric typewriter. Production reached around 2,500 units.

When typewriting still was hard physical work

In 1929, North East decided to go it alone and produced the first Electromatic typewriter. Meanwhile, General Motors had become curious. In 1928, the company bought a part of Northeast Electric and founded Electromatic Typewriters, Inc. for the typewriter business. This in turn attracted the interest of IBM, which bought it in 1933. Now, the typewriters were under the name of IBM Electromatic.

However, people in good old Europe were active at this time, too. In 1921, Carl Schlüns brought out the Mercedes Elektra. It was mechanical, but had a side-flanged electric motor. This made it the first powerful European typewriter with an electric drive lever. Improvements continued on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1944, with the IBM Executive, IBM brought the first electric typewriter with proportional font onto the market. It delivered an exquisite print-similar typeface.

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