Christopher Sholes
and the portable that never was




The man primarily responsible for developing the first commercially successful typewriter was Christopher Latham Sholes,  together with his associates Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule. 
Sholes, Glidden and Soule sold their patent rights to entrepreneur James Densmore who, in turn, signed a manufacturing deal with Philo Remington of the Remington small arms company.  The machine designed by Sholes and manufactured by Remington went on to adorn millions of desks  all over the world. Yet in this portrait, Sholes is shown posing not with the large, heavy Remington desk machine but with a hand-built prototype of a small, lightweight portable typewriter. Whatever happened to this promising invention?  It seems that Remington learned of Sholes development through Densmore and - as licensees of the primary typewriter patents- demanded that Sholes hand over the prototype.  Fearing that a small, cheap portable machine would undermine sales of the Remington desk typewriter, the company decided to suppress the invention.  In the long run, their fears were justified -- in the 1930s to 1960s it was Smith Corona, Underwood and Royal who largely dominated the typewriter business with portable machines that sold in tens of  millions.  It was not to be until 1920 that Remington decided to take a hand in the portable market itself, by which time Sholes's ideas for a portable were long out of date.  It is unlikely that we will ever know its exact specification, but the Sholes Portable appears to be a 4-bank machine similar in general arrangement to the 1924 Corona and 1926 Underwood Portable, except that - like all typewriters of the period - it is an understrike machine whose work would be invisible to the operator.  The one innovation that seems odd to us is what seems to be a lever operated carriage return (a design that German manufacturer Seidel & Naumann incorporated into its Ideal desk machine.) Probably the greatest 'What If . . ?' question in the entire history of the typewriter industry is, 'What if Remington had manufactured a 4-bank portable in 1890 instead of suppressing it?'

The Portable Typewriter Website

       Copyright Richard Milton 2003-2009
          Last revised: 23 June 2014

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