A Brief History of Typing, Typists and the Typewriter

James L. Qwerty http://rikravado.hubpages.com/hub/A-Brief-History-of-Typing

Lets begin with a little typewriter history. The first practical typewriter was manufactured by Remington, then an armaments company, in 1873. However, writing machine patents had been around much earlier and go back as far as the 1700s.

The keys on the early machines jammed easily but this problem was solved by splitting up the keys of the letters commonly used together. This resulted in the famous QWERTY keyboard, so named not because it was invented by James L Qwerty but because these were the first letters on the top left hand of the new keyboard.

Major drawbacks of the traditional typewriter include the need to replace the typewriter ribbon on a regular basis and the difficulty in correcting mistakes.

In spite of many attempts to redesign and improve the Qwerty keyboard, it remains, to this day as the input medium for modern computers including PDAs, tablets and laptops and also many gadgets such as mobile phones and blackberries.

Women and the Typewriter

In the 1910 US census over 80% of typists were women. Similarly the job of a secretary became associated in North America and Europe almost exclusively with women.

By the 1900s Typists often worked in typing pools, a faceless document production line where employees were assessed by more by the number of words per minute they could handle rather than their ability or worth as a human being. The only men expected to sit at a typewriter were writers and authors.

Barbara Blackburn was the fastest typist in the world in 2005 maintaining a speed of 150 words per minute for 50 minutes and reaching 170 WPM for shorter periods.


The traditional role of the secretary as personal typist, coffee maker and general dogs-body has been challenged by Hollywood since the 80s through a number of movies.

The anger of women about the perception of them in business as second-class citizens and servants of men was neatly summed up in the Dolly Parton movie and song ‘Nine to Five’ with accompanying typewriter percussion.

Melanie Griffiths in ‘Working Girl’ struggled to be taken seriously in a financial world dominated by men with Ivy League educations.

The slightly controversial movie ‘Secretary’ focuses on a concenting BDSM relationship which is underpinned by the traditional male fantasy of the secretary as a ‘sub’. This is emphasised by the boss (James Spader) spanking his secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for typing errors which she deliberately makes because she enjoys the punishment.

Picture From the Virtual TypeWriter Museum

"One day, Mr Crevis, you'll be able to surf the net for sexual gratification but for now you'll just have to make do with me and my typewriter..."
“One day, Mr Crevis, you’ll be able to surf the net for sexual gratification but for now you’ll just have to make do with me and my typewriter…”

Sexual Overtones?

This slightly perverse view of women and typewriters can be traced right back to the turn of the century. This promotional picture for a new typewriter model clearly has sexual overtones. Surely the focal point of the gentleman’s interest isn’t the typewriter?

Decline of the Typewriter

The decline of the typewriter began around 1980 when the first word processors appeared on the shelves. The decline increased with the advent of the personal computer and affordable word processing software packages.

The demise of the typewriter in turn lead to the fall of the typist, the typing pool and the traditional view of a secretary. But this dramatic change had a tremendous positive impact on the perception of women in the office and the careers of women.

The Future

The new information technologies enable everyone to do their own typing and printing, setting women free to take a more equal role in business. Although the job of typist has all but disappeared, accurate touch-typing and keyboard skills are still in demand and typing courses, both online and on CD are still very popular.

Amazingly the qwerty keyboard has survived all of this change and is even used, in rollup form, with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

However, It is just a matter of time before voice recognition, touch screens such as Apple’s Ipad or Iphone, virtual world technologies and position and motion sensing devices, consign the traditional keyboard to the garbage can.

Meanwhile women and men are still typing away at qwerty keyboards, instantly recognisable with space bar and shift key, to a time traveller from more than a hundred years ago.




Published by

Alison Fourie

AMF Typing Services was established 1st April 2001, we have over 30 years’ experience in typing, office management and secretarial services. AMF Typing Services offers confidential old school assistance in Typing, Word Processing, Transcription, Office Administration, and Internet Research to clients who require support in these services. By outsourcing these tasks to AMF Typing Services you will only pay for the work that you outsource to us. You will save costs in salary, employee benefits like medical aid, training, and the overheads that you would have with employees. AMF Typing Services has the skills and experience required to offer you a Quality Customer Service.

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