Typewriters, the predecessors of computer keyboards

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2022

I have a thing for old black-and-white movies in which journalists bang away at their Underwoods, hat pushed back on their head, a cigarette in the corner of their mouth. I like the clack-clack-clack of typewriters and then the “ding” at the end of the line.

Although retro today, typewriters were once state-of-the-art machines. That’s a simple fact I was reminded of when I stumbled upon Lovisa Ellen Bullard Barnes’ book How to Become Expert in Typewriting. A Complete Instructor Designed Especially for the Remington Typewriter (1890), described below. The QWERTY layout of modern keyboards is the same as on Remington’s typewriters in 1874.

“Beginners sometimes fail to notice that they have reached the end of the ribbon until they have made a hole in it by the type constantly striking the same spot.”

Typewriters are still being used. Why? BBC.com lists five reasons why, ranging from refuseniks to cool to lack of electricity to aesthetics to wedding invitations.

You might want to check out Richard Polt’s book The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century (how to choose, how to use, how to care for a typewriter). Polt is the founder of The Classic Typewriter Page website.

There’s also a 2012 documentary film called The Typewriter (In the 21stCentury) — “a film about a machine and the people who love, use and repair it.” I watched it free on Tubi. Here’s the trailer:

If you want to go retro without giving up the comfort of new technology, convert your typewriter into a computer keyboard or iPad dock using Jack Zylkin’s USB Typewriter Conversion Kit.

Or get a typewriter app like Tom Hanks’ Hanx Writer.

Or just try some typewriter fonts: 30 free typewriter fonts.

Online typewriter museums

The Virtual Typewriter Museum

Portable Typewriters: A virtual museum of portable typewriters (1890 to 1930)

Now over to Lovisa Ellen Bullard Barnes.

A complete Remington manual from 1890

Lovisa Ellen Bullard Barnes’ book How to Become Expert in Typewriting. A Complete Instructor Designed Especially for the Remington Typewriter has been digitalized. It’s an interesting read, written by one who knew her craft and shared her knowledge to heighten the skills of professional typists. Today, 100+ years later, we are reminded of how things were then, and of differences and similarities.

Recognizing the need for trained typists, Barnes not only explains the components of the typewriter and how to maintain it, but she also gives typing lessons and business letter examples and explains the rules of punctuation. The typing lessons include well-known pangrams like “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.” There’s also a section on how to succeed, dress and behave in the workplace.

In the Preface, Barnes writes:

The typewriter is so ingenious and simple in its construction that the average person can learn to write words on it in ten minutes’ time. Hence the long popular belief that no special instruction is needed, but that a few days’ practice alone will enable one to become a competent and valuable operator. This fallacy has brought disappointment and failure to many a bread-winner, has been the cause of untold annoyance to employers, and has forced capable and conscientious teachers to let their students go out unprepared because public opinion refused the time and expense necessary to learn properly the art of typewriting. As a natural result, business men are now complaining bitterly of the incompetency of applicants, even when they are the product of so-called business schools.

Like in any other line of work, to become a good business correspondent, training is required:

To be expert in typewriting means to be able to write without error, and at the same time rapidly and with evenness of touch, any kind of business document. It means to know how to care for the machine, to understand its workings, to be able to write on pper narrow or wide, ruled or unruled, on envelopes and postal cards, to manifold distinctly, to typewrite from dictation, to take manuscript that is badly written and poorly punctuated and to transform it into a correctly spelled and punctuated and business-like document, […] so that they shall be correct in form and artistic in appearance, rivaling printing in accuracy, and a work of art in perfection of detail.

Touch typing is key:

To learn to write by touch, that is, with only an occasional glance at the key-board, sit directly in front of the machine. Keep the hands as nearly as possible in one position over the key-board. When striking the space key with one hand, keep the location of the keys with the other. Write very slowly at first, and after every two or three words glance at the fingers to see if they are on the right keys. As you continue to practice, look less and less at the key-board, only often enough to make sure that you are writing accurately. When you can write the whole exercise without once looking at the fingers, then begin to increase your speed, but very gradually, that you may not fall into error.

Observe the end of line bell:

The bell rings to warn the writer that he is approaching the end of the line. Seven letters can be written after the bell rings. This gives time to finish a word, or to properly divide it, writing the whole of a syllable at the end of the line, placing a hyphen after it, and writing the remainder of the word on the next line. Beginners are apt to pay too little attention to the bell. They continue writing until the carriage ceases to move, and until they have printed several letters one over another.

Remember to change the ribbon:

Beginners sometimes fail to notice that they have reached the end of the ribbon until they have made a hole in it by the type constantly striking the same spot, or until the ribbon is so tight that the machine refuses to work; then they wonder what is the matter with their typewriter.

Embellishing ornaments:

Fancy borders are appropriate in many kinds of miscellaneous work. It adds greatly to their appearance to print them in different colors.


Bad spelling is always inexcusable. It has cost many a typewriter operator his position, and rightly too. In these days of cheap books no one has a right to remain ignorant, and bad spelling from carelessness is a thousand times worse than bad spelling from ignorance, a thousand times more provoking and inexcusable.

On the more curious side is the section on how to succeed in the workplace. It’s about being hard-working and quick to learn (“Do everything a little better than you are expected to. Be cheerful and obliging when asked to do work outside of your line.”), avoiding unnecessary conversation (“Young ladies especially should understand this, and should cultivate that modest dignity which is so becoming in a woman wherever she goes.”), dressing properly (“plainly but attractively”), and keeping “not only your hands and face and teeth, but your whole person, scrupulously clean.”

Read it. It gives a glimpse into the early days of typewriting.

Sidebar photo: Bengt Oberger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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