Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Story of James Densmore and the First Typewriter

James Densmore
As you string out words into strings of sentences across the screen of your computer, tablet, or mobile phone, know that the keyboard layout we have all become so familiar was conceived in Crawford County. The story behind this claim begins with a man named James Densmore and the invention of the first typewriter.  

James was one of seven children who arrived in Meadville when their father, Joel, moved the family from Rochester, New York in 1836 to open a water-powered plant for making wooden bowls. Despite having less than a year of formal schooling, Joel had educated himself so well that he engineered the machinery needed for his plant and could even accurately predict the various eclipses that occurred in the area. It was this grasp of mathematics and mechanics that Joel  would pass along to James and his brothers.

The Densmore children worked in the family business, and James was no exception. However, unlike his younger brothers who worked at the little factory, he was tasked with selling the wooden bowls his family produced. Traveling by horse and buggy, he headed to Pittsburgh to hock his wares, returning two months later with $2,000 in hand and not one bowl left. James, it seemed, was a natural-born salesman.

In adulthood, James became known for a certain level of eccentricity. He grew his beard unkempt and tangled, wore trousers cut several inches above his ankles, and ignored the conventions of a collar and ties. He also became a militant vegetarian who publicly admonished restaurant patrons for their meat-based entrees and he dined almost exclusively on apples.

Often characterised as “opinionated’ James Densmore found a perfect pulpit for his views as a newspaperman. In 1850 he moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to take over The True Democrat. Not long after he met Christopher Latham Sholes, and together they published the Telegraph. The partnership yielded a strong friendship between the two, and even after Densmore left Wisconsin to become publisher of the Independent in Indiana, the two maintained regular contact with the other.

Christopher Latham Sholes and his early typewriter
It’s would appear logical that two men in the business of printing words on paper had an interest in a machine that allowed individuals to do the same from the convenience of a desk. Sholes had already been working on such a device, but it was Densmore who recognized the device’s far-reaching impact, and he was quick to lend his help.

Time passed and Densmore returned to Crawford County on the heels of the oil boom. He and his brothers would lease land on the Tarr and Miller Farms to start their own highly profitable company which later became one of the foundational businesses in the formation of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. However, on a September day in 1867, Densmore received a curiously printed letter from Sholes inviting him to become a partner in a new company that would manufacture what he called the type-writer. When Densmore realized the letter had, in fact, been composed on a patented prototype, he immediately wired $600 to Milwaukee where Sholes has already set up a small factory.

It wasn’t until March of 1868 before Densmore could travel to Milwaukee to see the typewriter for himself. Upon inspection, though, he bluntly declared it useless other than proving that the typewriter’s premise was at least feasible. It was then that Densmore became directly involved with the invention’s refinement, identifying flaws and recommending fixes.

Early design for the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer
Believing stenographers to be the first to use the machine, Densmore enlist the help of James Clephane, a stenographer from Washington D.C. who subjected the typewriter to endless testing. With Clephane’s feedback, Densmore’s criticisms became so regular and extensive that two of the company’s investors dropped out, and even Sholes himself wanted to quit. Densmore wouldn’t hear of it.

"This candid fault-finding is just what we need,” he argued to Sholes. “We had better have it now than after we begin manufacturing. Where Clephane points out a weak lever or rod let us make it strong. Where a spacer or an inker works stiffly, let us make it work smoothly. Then, depend upon Clephane for all the praise we deserve." 

Densmore’s endless push for improvements even lead to an 1871 meeting involving himself, Sholes, and the country’s most famous inventor, Thomas A. Edison at Edison’s office in Newark, New Jersey. Edison expressed his interest in the typewriter which he tinkered with for a while before writing, “This typewriter proved a difficult thing.” Even so, Edison used the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer as the basis for the electric typewriter he developed and patented a year later.

The chief problem with the typewriter, early on, stemmed from its keyboard layout, which like other similar keyboards of the period, was arranged in alphabetical order. In the summer of 1868, Densmore produced 15 refined versions of the typewriter in Chicago and sold several of them to a nearby school for telegraphers where he could observe the device in use. As soon as the students began to type quickly, however, the keys began to stick, forcing the user to stop and correct the jam.  Witnessing this, Densmore realized the typewriter was still not ready for commercial use.

When Densmore relayed what he had witnessed to Sholes, Sholes concluded the solution lay in keeping the user from typing too fast. But how could this be done without sacrificing efficiency for the typist? Another Densmore, James’ brother Amos, would provide the answer.

Amos Densmore
Amos Densmore grew up working in his father’s bowl factory, attended the Meadville public schools and graduated from Allegheny College. For as boisterous and loud as his brother was, Amos was just as quiet and reserved, yet the two already had an effective working relationship. During their time at the Densmore Oil Company, James and Amos designed and built the first practical oil tanker rail car, allowing larger amounts of petroleum to be transported with greater efficiency. Now Amos turned his attention to the typewriter.

After conducting a letter-pair frequency study, Amos was able to derive which letters and letter groupings were used more often than others. Sholes used this information to rearrange the keyboard keys so that the most common letters were not within proximity of the others and the type bars would strike from opposite directions. The concept greatly reduced the clashing of type bars that jammed the machine. This refined arrangement would eventually, in time, become the "QWERTY" keyboard we use today. [See Note 1]

With this newest improvement, James felt he could put the machine back into production for commercial use. By this time demand for the typewriter had increased, but now James was faced with another problem in that the cost to produce the machine exceeded the selling price. For help, James turned to George Washington Newton Yost, a former business associate who ran a farm machinary factory in Corry, Pennsylvania.

Yost traveled to Milwaukee to observe the typewriter’s production and suggested to James, that he enlist the help of E. Remington & Sons, manufacturers of guns, farming implements, and sewing machines. In March of 1873, Sholes, bored with his invention, sold his patent rights to Remington for $12,000. The new owners immediately put their engineers to work improving the machine’s design for faster production.

Densmore Ad for 1895
James Densmore, however, held his faith in the typewriter, negotiating royalty payments for himself and working for Remington as sales manager for the device. The move proved extremely profitable for Densmore who would go on to earn $1.5 million as a result. It would also serve as point of contention for Sholes who would accuse his former partner of cheating him. Densmore countered, pointing out that prior to the deal with Remington, Sholes had profited more from the typewriter than himself. Upon reviewing his records, Sholes discovered this was indeed the case.

James’ time at Remington seems to be short-lived. Not long after he and Amos started The Typewriter Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. Later, the two were joined by brother Emmett, and the name was changed to the Densmore Typewriter Company. The first typewriters to be labeled Densmore rolled out in 1891. Unfortunately, James was unable to witness this milestone. In 1889, the Densmore whose relentlessness help make the typewriter accessible to the masses, died at age 69 in Brooklyn, New York. His long-time partner, Sholes, would die five months after.  

Amos and Emmett continued to make “the world’s greatest typewriter,” releasing 6 major models in the years to come. [See Note 2]  In 1910 the Densmore Typewriter Company closed its doors.

A Densmore Model No. 2


Note 1: The development of the QWERTY keyboard is not without controversy, specifically concerning the degree of Amos’s involvement which often goes unmentioned. This may be due to the fact that Sholes (along with Carlos Glidden) is credited on the official patent for the 1878 model Sholes and Glidden typewriter. Modern research discredits Amos’s letter-pairings and surmise that Sholes developed the keyboard through trial and error.

Note 2: A Densmore typewriter is currently on display at the Crawford County Historical Society.


Meadville… Its Past and Present, Sesqui-Centennial Edition of the Tribune Republican, May 12, 1938

Bryan, Ford. Henry's Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and His Museum, Wayne State University Press. Detroit, Michigan. 2006

Pees, Samuel T. and Senges, Richard. “The Densomer Brothers and America’s First Successful Railway Oil Tank Car,” Oil-Industry History, Vol. 5 No. 1. 2004

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer: A Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2011

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