The machine that emancipated women

On March 1st, 1873, E Remington and Sons of Ilion, New York, began production of the first practical typewriter. Before then messages were hand-written, and difficult to read if the writer had poor handwriting. The typewriter enabled words to be written faster and more legibly, and with standardized letters that looked exactly the same each time.

Its immediate commercial impact was that it speeded up business communication and made it less prone to error. Remington created the QWERTY keyboard, and went from selling 1,400 typewriters in 1882 to 14,000 in 1887. The QWERTY distribution was chosen because some people typed so fast that the mechanical rods attached to the keys stuck together. Under the new pattern, the most used letters were spaced out so the rods didn’t jam together. Remington’s success led to other manufacturers adopting the same layout.

In an article in The North American Review, 1888, "The Typewriter; Its Growth and Uses," P G Hubert wrote: “With the aid of this little machine an operator can accomplish more correspondence in a day than half a dozen clerks can with the pen, and do better work,”

The typewriter had a sociological impact as well as an economic one. Hubert also pointed out that the typewriter provided employment opportunities for women. Prior to that time, the most common jobs for women were in domestic service, with teaching being the main outside professional job for those better educated. He observed that typing jobs paid as much or more as teaching did.

The spread of secretarial jobs and the rise of the typing pool gave women new economic power. It changed attitudes, as women were now able to join the productive economy. Women had more opportunities for independence, and restaurants emerged to meet the lunchtime needs of female workers.

Opinions were at first divided, with some religious leaders deploring the fact that mixing the sexes in workplaces gave rise to opportunities for sin. On the other hand, others tied the growing economic power of women, made possible by the typewriter, to a more assertive determination to become full citizens by acquiring the right to vote.

Having ruled for nearly a century, the day of the typewriter drew to a close, its remains preserved in the keyboards of our computers like flies preserved in amber. Even those keyboards might soon fade away as voice recognition technology supersedes them.