Time Piece: Click Clack

FRAMINGHAM (03/15/2000) - In 1714, Queen Anne of England granted patent number 385 to one Henry Mill for "an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters, singly or progressively...on paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print."

Sounds like a typewriter, doesn't it? Unfortunately, there is no other record of whatever it was that Mill made. It took until 1874 before E. Remington & Sons (yes, the gunmakers) in Ilion, N.Y., made the first typewriter to succeed in the marketplace, fashioned after an 1868 working model by a Milwaukee-based tinkerer named Christopher Latham Sholes.

Sholes repurposed an old telegraph instrument. Rods with print types at the ends swung up from a bar to hit the inserted paper when the keys were struck.

Concerned that typists might strike too rapidly, leading to colliding rods, Sholes tried to slow them down by placing the letters on the keyboard in the odd arrangement we know as qwerty (named after the first six letters in the second row of the keyboard). In his desire to frustrate touch typists, Sholes failed, but his machine was otherwise a raging success, creating jobs for millions and leading to an equal number of bad novels. Most of all, the typewriter created a percussive rat-a-tat-tat soundtrack for the 20th century that, if you listen carefully to the clicking of your qwerty keyboard, persists, albeit in a somewhat muted form, in the 21st.

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