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William A. Burt patents the first working model of a typewriter

From typographer to recognizable typewriter: a journey of eight decades.

Innovative products rarely enter a market fully formed. And sometimes the innovation precedes its market.

The typewriter fits both of those scenarios.

William Austin Burt obtained U.S. patent no. 259 for what he dubbed the typographer about 200 years ago. The 1836 Patent Office fire destroyed the first working model of a typewriter that he provided the office in 1829.

On 25 May 1829, writing from the Michigan Territory (it became a state in 1837) Burt’s friend John P. Sheldon wrote a letter to Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, using Burt’s invention:

First typewritten letter
First letter typed on Burt’s typographer, 25 May 1829

President Andrew Jackson signed the patent on 23 July 1829.

Burt anticipated that his invention would be used in homes, offices and stores. As a surveyor, he wanted to “speed up his work in official correspondence.” In that goal, he was unsuccessful. (The typographer was slow!)

It would be another 40 years before American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes “established the modern idea of the typewriter.”

The story of the typewriter from 1868 to its booming success in the late 1880s is really the story of its staunchest supporter, James Densmore. Under Densmore’s prodding, Sholes improved the first crude machine many times over. Densmore was also responsible for recruiting the machine’s first mass manufacturer, E. Remington and Sons, of Ilion, New York, a company that had made armaments during the Civil War and was looking for new products to manufacture.

Unlike Burt, Sholes thought “clergymen and men of letters” would be his primary market. Nope.

Americans in the 1870s and 1880s were deeply uncomfortable with the strange notion of “mechanical writing.” Convention prescribed that all letters be written out in neat longhand, and businessmen enjoyed no exception from this requirement.

By 1893, the typewriter had morphed into a machine with a keyboard that is a bit more familiar looking:

Remington typewriter
The first Sholes & Glidden model typewriter made by Remington; Wisconsin Historical Museum

The US patent office commissioned a replica of the typographer from Burt’s great-grandson in 1892. It was an example of “great American inventions” on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.

Newspaper clipping
Kansas City Times, 11 September 1931

Manufacturers would eventually settle on the QWERTY keyboard configuration. Then in 1936, Dvorak and Dealey patented an alternative keyboard. Whether or not it was easier on the hands, first mover advantage and switching costs kept the nod with QWERTY.

In 1920, the New York State Shorthand Reporters Association nominated Burt, “the father of the type-writer,” for the Hall of Fame at New York University.

… for the following forty-five years writing machines were generally given this name by their inventors.

Is the typewriter as “quaint and old-fashioned as carbon paper“? My vote is yes … and I’m laughing at the expressions my students might display if I used the words “carbon paper” in a sentence!


Aside: Burt surveyed state boundaries for Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He found that iron deposits would flummox a normal magnetic compass. An ingenious problem-solver, Burt began developing a solar compass in 1836.

In 1850, the year that Burt’s patent expired, the General Land Office adopted the solar compass as a standard instrument for all major boundary lines in regions of magnetic disturbance, and demand rose accordingly.


#scitech, #science  (184/365)
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

2 replies on “William A. Burt patents the first working model of a typewriter”

Rather remarkably, I still use my 1912 Underwood to send blind letters to CEOs and others who would delete my emails if they even saw them, Remarkably, most answer. It is my most powerful business tool in fact.

I’m not surprised. It’s the unicorn factor of a letter.

Mike and I got a letter – hand addressed to both of us – from a city council member urging our support of two candidates. It made an impression.

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