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Happy 155th birthday, typewriter.

If you have this old friend this is the right day to dust it off!

The first in history to send a novel in typed form to a publisher was Mark Twain in 1883, who wrote his first book on the Remington No.1, the first mass-produced typewriter. It was Christopher Latham Sholes who patented it on June 23, 1868.

The history of the typewriter has uncertain origins but we can attribute it to an Italian invention. In fact, the most remote attempt dates back to 1575 and belongs to Francesco Rampazetto, a publisher active in Venice who designed a mechanical device with characters in relief that allowed blind people to communicate with each other. Piero Conti, from Pavia, in 1823 created the tachograph – from the Greek “who writes quickly” – and a few years later Giuseppe Ravizza, a lawyer from Novara, built a writing harpsichord in 1846, then patented it in 1855, a model of which is conserved in the Museum of Science and Technology of Milan. In South Tyrol, between 1864 and 1869, Peter Mitterhofer, a carpenter with inventor skills, built five models of typewriters, the first two of which were made of wood, and he walked from Parcines to Vienna to deliver the invention to Emperor Franz Joseph. The sovereign and his experts, however, did not grasp the commercial importance of the prototype which instead arrived overseas, exactly to an American journalist who later became a senator, Christopher Latham Sholes. Sholes, eager to participate in the age of invention, began to work on a machine that automatically numbered the pages of books.

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His model featured a piano-like keyboard with ebony and ivory keys arranged in two rows. The letters were capitalized and the numbers “zero” and “one” were missing, which were thought to be replaceable with the letters “O” and “I”. By working on it, Sholes noticed the poor functionality of the alphabetical arrangement of the letters, and decided to adopt a different order that separated the most used pairs, thus preventing the numerous jams frequent at the time, as the machines were not so fast to follow the speed of writing. It was called QWERTY, after the sequence of the first six letters from the left, and is still the same sequence found on many digital keyboards, although the keys no longer operate levers. The Sholes & Glidden TypeWriter patent after some failed marketing attempts was taken over by Remington & Sons which changed the name of the machine to Remington No. 1 and in 1873 began mass production in its sewing machine department.

The QWERTY initially wrote only in capital letters and “blindly for the typist”, because the character tapped under the roller and not in front of it: any typing errors were discovered at the end of the page by lifting the roller. Remington initially rejected the patent of the German engineer, Franz Xavier Wagner, who had solved the problem by introducing frontal writing, so Underwood, another American company already producing inked ribbons, bought the patent and started producing more advanced models.

This is the scenario that Camillo Olivetti encountered in America in 1893 when, following his teacher Galileo Ferraris, took part in the first demonstration of public lighting in Chicago, by Thomas Alva Edison. Conquered by the new inventions, Olivetti spent two years in the electrical engineering department of Stanford University. In the following years he brought the production of measuring instruments and typewriters to Italy, presenting the first Olivetti at the Universal Exhibition in Turin in 1911.

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The first machines produced were large and heavy, but users – writers and journalists in particular – needed to take them with them on trips and business trips. Hence the birth of the portables, lighter, more comfortable, possibly “pretty”, small and compact in their cases. In the meantime, a predominantly female work developed around typewriters, which at its origins represented one of the first opportunities for emancipation from domestic “obligations”. The first typist was to all intents and purposes Lilly, the daughter of Senator Latham Sholes, to whom her father entrusted the testing of the prototypes.

But not just small tests. Typewriters have accompanied the writers of the twentieth century in drafting the most popular works of literature. The Portable N.2 of 1878 already had upper and lower case letters, with shift key and QWERTY alphanumeric keyboard. The 1886 Remington No. 5, used by Agatha Christie, was still blind writing. Smaller and lighter, the Hammond No.1 was used by Lewis Carroll. The Underwood of 1893 was the first hammer machine with visible writing and it was used by Luigi Pirandello, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf. In 1906, the Royal No. 1 made its appearance, with a flatbed design, used by George Orwell. The Olivetti MP1, designed in 1932 and available in various colors, was used by Marguerite Duras but the portable Lettera 22 was the most successful in the 1950s, a machine used by Cesare Marchi, Enzo Biagi, Indro Montanelli, Leonard Cohen and Cormac McCarthy.

Today, hardly anyone uses it anymore but it has become a cult object so much that, of certain models, the ribbons are still found. In Italy we find them exhibited in some museums including in Milan, in the Typewriter Museum, in Trani in the Lodispoto Palace and in Bolzano in the Peter Mitterhofer Museum.