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date: 08 December 2019

Sholes, Christopher Lathamfree

(14 February 1819–17 February 1890)
  • Guillaume de Syon

Sholes, Christopher Latham (14 February 1819–17 February 1890), printer, journalist, and inventor, was born on a farm near Mooresburg, Pennsylvania, the son of Orrin Sholes, a cabinetmaker; his mother’s name is not known. His parents moved soon after to Danville, Pennsylvania, where he attended school until age fourteen. He worked as an apprentice printer for the editor of the (Danville, Pa.) Intelligencer for four years, then moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to live with a brother and to work on the house journal of the territorial legislature. At age twenty Sholes went to Madison and took charge of the Wisconsin Inquirer, owned by his brother Charles. A year later he moved to Southport (later Kenosha), Wisconsin, and established the Telegraph with his friend Michael Frank. In 1851 he met and married Mary Jane McKinney; they had six sons and four daughters.

Sholes was appointed postmaster in 1851. This work, combined with his journalistic career and passion to defend the underdog, led him into politics. Raised as a Democrat, he later joined the Free Soil movement. He served two terms as state senator (1848–1849 and 1852–1853) and one term in the state assembly (1856–1857). An advocate of abolition, he later helped to found the Republican party in Wisconsin.

In 1860 Sholes moved to Milwaukee, where he assumed the post of editor of the Sentinel. He soon gave up that position to become customs collector of the port of Milwaukee at the request of President Abraham Lincoln. Sholes’s varied activities reflected his enthusiasm for new subjects and issues. By the end of the Civil War he had a dual career as a journalist and politician but had earned no honors. However, he had already exhibited signs of his inventiveness in the course of his publishing activities.

Early in his editorial work Sholes devised a system to print the names of subscribers in the margin of the front page, a process intended to save time in distribution. He did not pursue any of his inventions or innovations; it was typical of him to move from one interest to another. Once he became customs collector, however, he had more leisure time and a steady income. He and Samuel W. Soulé, a machinist, devised a series of mechanical printing devices which they patented. Working in a mechanic’s shop, they perfected and patented a machine designed to number the pages of blank books. They shared their shop with a third inventor, Carlos Glidden, who reportedly suggested to Sholes that his numbering machine provide the basis for a lettering machine similar to that devised by John Pratt in London.

The invention of personal typing machines had been attempted time and again since the early eighteenth century, but none of the prototypes constructed were practical enough for mass production and use. Working from a Scientific American article describing the Pratt “pterotype,” Sholes in 1867 set about devising a practical model. That summer he had a working model, limited to printing a single letter. By September he was able to type his name and the date, all in capitals. The patent for this machine, which was made of wood and had eleven piano keys, was granted in June 1868; two later improvements were also patented in Sholes’s name. The machine Sholes patented was similar to earlier models by other, unsuccessful inventors in that it used a circular disposition of letters that responded to impact on the keyboard. As soon as the letter was printed, the carriage, which was above the character reel, moved one space to the left. The lasting innovation in Sholes’s invention, however, was the keyboard layout. After many experiments he found that a keyboard with letters in alphabetical order caused the levers to tend to collide, jamming the device. Sholes rearranged the letters so that the upper row of keys began with the letters QWERTY. This arrangement, although challenged by other manufactuerers, was soon adopted by typing schools and remains the standard layout for American English keyboards, even though others have been suggested as more efficient. A shift-key allowing the use of both upper-case and lower-case letters was added to the machine in 1878.

Although Sholes displayed inventive genius, he was unsuccessful at raising the capital necessary to launch mass production of his machine. In the meantime he benefited from the encouragement and criticisms of acquaintances, particularly James Clephane, a stenographer in Washington, D.C. His reports and those of other testers, as well as the encouragement of James Densmore, a lawyer and investor, led Sholes to improve his machines, producing as many as fifty by 1873. He failed, however, to market them successfully, and most were given away for publicity or to hold off creditors. As a result, Sholes’s partners eventually relinquished their rights to his invention, and in 1873 Sholes sold the production rights to the Remington company in New York. The first Remington machines were marketed the following year. Sholes carried on work on the typewriter, communicating each improvement to the Remington factory. His last patent was granted in 1878. He spent the remainder of his life fighting tuberculosis, which eventually caused his death in Milwaukee.

Although Sholes was not the first to invent a typing machine, he was the first to devise a practical model, which he called the “type-writer.” He was aware of the value of his invention and later described it as a means for women to “more easily earn a living” and to achieve entrepreneurial independence. Despite his talents as a journalist and inventor, his idealism and passion often prevented him from persevering in a methodical way; this explains his lack of success when his inventions reached the marketing stage. He deserves credit, however, for being the first to devise a practical individual printing machine.

Bibliography

A collection of Sholes’s papers are at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. See also Richard Nelson Current, The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954); Arthur Toye Foulke, Mr. Typewriter (1961); Wilfred A. Beeching, Century of the Typewriter (1974); and Frank J. Romano, Machine Writing and Typesetting (1986).