Christopher Latham Sholes: 1819 – 1890
I recently visited the location in Milwaukee where the typewriter was invented. At the corner of Fourth and State Streets a historical marker reads, “At 318 State Street, 300 feet northeast of here, C. Latham Sholes perfected the first practical typewriter in 1869. Here he worked with Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soulé and Matthias Schwalbach in the machine shop of C. F. Kleinsteuber.”
With Kleinsteuber’s work shop long gone, the marker stands on the property of US Cellular Arena, former home of the Milwaukee Bucks and several other professional sports teams. The 12,700-seat indoor arena was built in 1968. The Bucks and the other teams moved across State Street to the newer 18,000-seat BMO Harris Bradley Center … built a mere twenty-five years ago.
The modern surroundings of the typewriter’s birthplace are a reminder of how much time has passed since Sholes’ invention “freed the world from pen slavery.” Fortunately, a surviving photo of Kleinsteuber’s machine shop provides a glimpse into what life was like for Milwaukeeans between the Civil War and the automobile.
Christopher Latham Sholes was born February 14, 1819 in Mooresburg in Montour County, Pennsylvania, not far from the country seat of Danville. Sholes was born in a cellarless loghouse, eighteen feet square, a story and a half and with four windows.
After his family moved to Danville, Christopher’s mother Catherine Cook Sholes died in 1826 when he was seven. His father Orrin Sholes was a cabinetmaker and he had a workshop in town. While attending Henderson’s school in Danville, Christopher worked in his father’s cabinet shop. After graduation at age fourteen, he was apprenticed to the printing trade as a shop “devil” on the Danville Democratic Intelligencer.
By the time Sholes achieved master printer status at age eighteen, his family decided to move to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Encouraged to make the 750-mile trek by President Andrew Jackson’s proclamation of public land sales, the Sholes were among the frontline of settlers who relocated to the Territory of Wisconsin.
Christopher’s older brother Charles had established himself as a printer and political figure in the area. Prior to the arrival of the family, Charles had become the publisher and editor of the Green Bay Democrat. The elder Sholes would go on, following Wisconsin statehood in 1848, to serve in both houses of the state legislature and as well as mayor of Kenosha.
With a combination of his brother’s influence and his own exceptional talents, Christopher was appointed official printer and took charge of the House Journal of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. At age twenty, he became editor of the Wisconsin Enquirer, a Madison publication owned by his brother.
In 1840, Christopher moved to Southport (later Kenosha). He launched and became editor of the Southport Telegraph. The paper took its name from the invention of Samuel Morse. Sholes recognized the telegraph as a breakthrough communications technology that would improve the speed of news distribution. In 1844, he also became town postmaster.
Inevitably, like his brother, Christopher entered politics. He served two terms (1848-49 and 1956-57) in the state senate and one term in the assembly (1852-53). In 1860, Sholes moved to Milwaukee where he became postmaster and commissioner of public works. He was also at different times editor of the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and the Milwaukee News.
Sholes’ inventive genius was sparked by business needs. His first invention was for printing the address of subscribers into the margin of newspapers, an early form of what we now call “variable data printing.” He also worked with fellow inventors Samuel W. Soulé (machinist) and Carlos S. Glidden (attorney) on a machine for automatically numbering the pages of blank books and for sequentially numbering checks. Sholes obtained US Patents in 1864 for these inventions as well as one for a combination shoe brush-shoe scraper he invented along with C. F. J. Moller in 1866.
By the 1860s, many people were interested in developing, investing in or inventing a “Machine for Writing with Type or Printing on Paper or Other Substance” as one such system was called. The race was on to see who could come up with a viable, personal and portable alternative to the four hundred year old relief-printing process associated with Johannes Gutenberg.
Attempts had been made to conceptualize and even produce a typewriter going back to the 1700s. Englishman Henry Mill received a patent from Queen Anne in 1714 that called for “impressing or transcribing letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, where all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print; …” However, as promising as it sounded, Mill left behind no drawings or record of any existing machine to go along with what was a breakthrough idea.
Sholes was inspired to solve the technical riddle of the typewriter after he saw the July 6, 1867 issue of Scientific American. The SA article reported an invention that had been exhibited at the London Society of Arts by John Pratt (later known as the Pterotype or “winged type”) of Centre, Alabama.
The SA editors captured the implications of what would become later Sholes’ invention: “Legal copying and writing and delivery of sermons and lectures, not to speak of letters and editorials, will undergo a revolution as remarkable as that effected in books by the invention of printing, and the weary process of learning penmanship in schools will be reduced to the acquirement of the art of writing one’s own signature and playing on the literary piano above described, or rather on its improved successors.”
Sholes vision for the typewriter was a natural extension of his numbering machine inventions of 1864. The proof of concept was a primitive system of wood frame, glass platen and brass bar attached to a Morse telegraph “key.” It produced the letter “w” over and over again by striking through a piece of carbon onto a sheet of paper against the glass.
After receiving an enthusiastic response from those who saw the concept, Sholes worked with Soulé, Glidden and the engineer Matthias Schwalbach throughout the summer and fall of 1867 to develop the first working typewriter. This machine used a keyboard that looked similar to that of a piano and it had a typewriter ribbon to transfer the image to paper. On June 23, 1968, Sholes, Glidden and Soulé received a patent for the design and it is recognized as the first practical typewriter.
The innovations represented by this invention are too numerous to explain in detail here. As the patent—filed on October 11, 1867—explains, “Its features are a better way of working the type-bars, of holding the paper on the carriage, of moving and regulating the movement of the carriage, of holding, applying and moving the inking ribbon, a self adjusting platen, and a rest or cushion for the type-bars to follow.” However, the inventors acknowledged the advances of others before them and filed the patent for “improvement in type-writing machines,” not the invention of the typewriter itself.
Mention should be made here of the QWERTY keyboard about which much has been written. The record shows that the keyboard design underwent an evolution beginning with a straightforward listing of numbers and letters of the alphabet. Upon testing and subsequent design improvements—coinciding with the collaboration of the inventors with investor James Densmore—it was seen that frequent jamming of the type bars was a barrier to practical use of the machine.
Sholes worked with the Densmore’s brother Amos, an educator, to make a statistical analysis of the most frequently used letter combinations. From there Sholes changed the keyboard design such that common letter pairs were separated by a “lag time” and the instance of type bar jams was reduced. The resultant QWERTY keyboard remains in use today even though these mechanical considerations are no longer present.
Something must also be said of Sholes’ character. While he was a man of significant talents and influence—Sholes left his position as editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel to accept an appointment by President Abraham Lincoln as Collector of the Port of Milwaukee—he was also a man of great principles and humility. An active opponent of slavery, Sholes was an abolitionist and founding member of Lincoln’s Republican Party. He supported the case of Joshua Glover that challenged the Fugitive Slave Act.
Historians universally recognize the magnanimity of Sholes and his preoccupation with progress over personal gain and recognition. It is a fact that he sold his invention to Remington (the Civil War gun manufacturer) for mass production and gladly accepted a one-time payment of $12,000 instead of a royalty contract.
Christopher Latham Sholes suffered throughout his life from persistent health issues that were likely the product of the harsh conditions of his upbringing. He died on February 17, 1890, after a long bout with tuberculosis, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery. An effort was mounted in the early twentieth century to appropriately recognize Sholes and his grave was marked with a monument. It says “Dedicated by the young men and women of America in grateful memory of one who materially aided in the world’s progress.”