Historical Markers
Christopher Sholes Historical Marker
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Christopher Sholes

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
U.S. 11 in Danville at Mahoning Creek

Dedication Date:
May 1, 1965

Behind the Marker

Black and white, head and shoulders, image.
Christopher Latham Sholes, developer of the typewriter, circa 1885.
I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair and work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don't muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.

                                               -Your Brother, Sam, December, 1874

In 1874, Mark Twain was walking by a Boston shop window when he saw a peculiar new invention called a "Type-Writer," and a notice claiming that a person could write fifty-seven words a minute using the machine. He immediately went inside and after insisting that the salesman verify the claim, watched an agreeable young woman, employed specifically for this demonstration, type sheet after sheet of copy at just that speed. Twain then plunked down an outrageous $125 for the machine-at a time when a pen cost just one cent-and embarked on a love/hate relationship familiar to any 21st-century technophile.
Printed patent drawing for a typewriter
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The printed patent drawing for a Type-Writer invented by Christopher L. Sholes,...
Three months later he wrote a dubious "testimonial" for the company that manufactured it, insisting, "I don't want people to know that I own this curiosity breeding marker little joker."

Twain, allegedly, then became the first person to write a novel on a typewriter. Some scholars say it was the final draft of Tom Sawyer, and others swear it was Life on the Mississippi. Confusion abounds when it comes to the history of the typewriter. Christopher Latham Sholes is said to be alternately, its first or 52nd or 76th inventor, depending on the emphasis placed on the conception, production and marketing of the invention. Sholes, no matter how he is numbered, was demonstrably the first American, along with a team of tinkerers and pitchmen, to develop a practical machine for the marketplace.

Born in Mooresburg, Pa., in 1819, Sholes learned the printing trade in Danville. By the age of twenty he had moved to Wisconsin where he began a newspaper career, married, had ten children, and engaged in poetry and politics. An ardent Free Soiler, Sholes served two terms in the state senate and one in the assembly. When Abraham Lincoln appointed him Collector of Customs for the Port of Milwaukee, he finally had the time and financial wherewithal to putter with his friends in C.F. Kleinsteuber's machine shop. There they worked on trick clocks for magicians, improved spading systems for farmers and other projects.
Head shot, black and white.
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Typewriter promoter James Densmore, circa 1880.
And, like enthusiasts everywhere, they talked. And talked. And talked about what they had read or seen, including something Sholes had learned about in Scientific American: John Pratt's Pterotype, a British prototype for a mechanical writing device.

Rarely in good health during the summer of 1867, Sholes was kept awake nights by a severe chronic cough, which eventually became tuberculosis. It was during these fitful nights that he envisioned his first mechanical writing machine, with the image of a piano hammer in his mind. The group at Kleinsteuber's borrowed a telegraph key, attached it to a type bar, whittled a few wooden parts, and came up with their very first working type machine. It had only one key-the letter W-which it typed through a sheet of carbon paper onto the underside of a piece of plate glass.

By September, Sholes, aided by machinist Samuel W. Soule and inventor Carlos Glidden, had a working model for a machine that could type the entire alphabet (capitals only), numerals 2 through 9, and punctuation marks. In 1868, Sholes, Glidden, and Soule received patent No. 79,265 for a "Type-Writer."

Early Sholes and Glidden typewriter
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Early Sholes and Glidden typewriter, circa 1873.
Sholes courted potential investors by sending sample letters typed on his machine. James Densmore offered to pay the inventor's back bills of $600 and to provide all future capital, for a 25 percent interest in the machine.

Densmore was a lawyer, businessman and inventor in his own right, having patented with his brother Amos themarker first railroad oil tanker car while working in the Pennsylvania oil fields. But Densmore wasn't exactly loaded when he bought the rights to the Type-Writer; he, in fact, banked his last earnings on the machine. He was, however, a fierce godfather to the invention, goading Sholes for improvements. Densmore insisted on placing prototypes with clerks in Washington, D.C., so Sholes could respond to their steady stream of complaints about the product. And it was Densmore who in 1873 took the Sholes machine, wrapped in newsprint, to the Remington Arms Company in Ilion, N.Y., and convinced them to bankroll production. At that point, Sholes sold out his remaining interest in the machine for $12,000.

A young lady, wearing a long skirt and a long sleeve jacket, sits at a typewriter.
Lillian Sholes, the daughter of typewriter inventor Christopher Latham Sholes,...
Deploying a team of skilled machinists to fine tune the machine, Remington in 1874 produced the first commercially viable typewriter, called the Sholes-Glidden, at a cost of $125-the cost in today's dollars of a high-end computer. Remington produced about 5,000 of these by 1878, but the high cost of the machine, which appeared on the market during a national depression, did not make for immediate success.

The Sholes-Glidden was a thing of ornate beauty. Elaborately decorated in floral motifs, it sat atop a sewing stand-Remington was already producing its signature sewing machines-and had a foot treadle for carriage return. The original machine, however, had many problems. An operator could not see what he was typing since the keys hit the platen from below. The inking system was messy, the alignment of the letters imperfect, and the key arrangement, originally alphabetical, tended to jam. Using newspaper type cases as their model, Sholes and Densmore rearranged the keys into a system based roughly on letter-pair frequency developed by Densmore's brother Amos. The partners considered the arrangement important enough to include it in Sholes' 1878 patent, and thus was born the QWERTY system still in use today.

A man with a gray beard and hair, sits at a typewriter, while above are a long line of ladies that fade into the backgound.
Illustration of Christopher Sholes with the "Grateful Ladies."
Densmore continued to champion the typewriter, and absorbed many financial blows during its promotion. For awhile he worked as a typist for a court reporter to earn money to file patents on other inventions he thought could finance development of the typewriter. He also worked as a salesman for the Remington Company. In 1891 his brothers Amos and Emmett developed their own typewriter, The Densmore. This machine featured ball bearings for a lighter touch and a removable carriage to facilitate cleaning and maintenance.

James Densmore was eventually well paid for his faith in the machine. The early years of owing back rent on a garret and eating only dry crusts of bread and raw vegetables paid off. When he died in 1889, he was worth half a million dollars.

Sholes spent most of the remainder of his life improving the typewriter, and inventing the touch-typing system and a portable version of his machine. He died of consumption in 1890, without ever gaining much financially by his invention. Shortly before his death he said, "Whatever I may have felt in the early days of the value of the typewriter, it is obviously a blessing to mankind, and especially to womankind. I am glad I had something to do with it. I built it wiser than I knew, and the world has the benefit of it."
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