Before the age of the computer, typewriters fulfilled our need to write faster than our pens would allow. The gentle click of keys on a keyboard are no match for the loud strikes of a letter key pressing paper to inked ribbon and platen to create an inked letter upon a clean white page. The end of a line of type was signaled by the loud ding of a bell followed by the slamming of the carriage as a new, fresh line of paper appeared.
The history of the typewriter is as intricate as the machine itself. Although attempts at a “writing machine” were made as early as the eighteenth century, the first successful typewriter was invented in Milwaukee in the late 1860s. These early machines were crude and the keys had a tendency to jam. Mark Twain was an early purchaser of the typewriter though he complained that it made him want to swear. He used it occasionally for letters as early as the 1870s and in 1882 submitted a typewritten manuscript of Life on the Mississippi to his publisher, James R. Osgood & Co. of Boston.
By the turn of the twentieth century typewriters had caught on in a big way and Connecticut had become an important manufacturing center for this revolutionary new business machine.
Underwood Typewriters were first advertised for sale in the Hartford Courant in 1898, at which point the factory was located in New Jersey. But in 1901, the company had moved its factory to Hartford. By 1911, the huge factory complex stretched for blocks along Capitol Avenue. A window display from that period showed the worldwide distribution of the machines, citing their use by the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria, and the United States Navy. By the end of the 1930s, Underwood had produced over five million typewriters.
The Royal Typewriter Company was founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 1904, but like Underwood, it soon found a home in Hartford. It first considered relocating to Manchester, Connecticut, but in 1906, the company purchased property on New Park Avenue in Hartford, and built its new factory there. By the mid-twentieth century, Royal, with over 6000 employees, was the largest company in the world dedicated exclusively to the manufacture of typewriters.
By the end of the 1980s, as personal computers were rapidly replacing typewriters in homes and offices, Underwood and Royal merged with Olivetti, an Italian manufacturer of typewriters and computers. By 2000, the typewriter was essentially obsolete.
Classic Royal and Underwood typewriters and a typewriter repairman’s tool kit are on view in the exhibition Making Connecticut at the Connecticut Historical Society at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT 06105. Jewelry made from typewriter keys is for sale in the CHS Museum Store. For more information go to chs.org.