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The clatter began 125 years ago

Christopher Sholes spent hours tinkering, trying to make devices he thought would help humanity. In 1868, the Milwaukee newspaperman was at work on a machine to automatically number the pages of a book. A friend suggested the machine print the entire alphabet instead.

Five years and a few prototypes later, the typewriter was born. The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this year, was manufactured by Remington gunmakers from 1873 to 1878.

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It resembled an ornate sewing machine. It was mounted on a table and even had a foot treadle for the carriage return. It was not a great success. Only 5,000 were sold, at $125 apiece. (That's the equivalent of $1,500 today - the cost of a well-equipped home computer.)

The first machine did not have a shift key; that would come 25 years later. It typed only capital letters, and you could not see what you were typing without lifting up the carriage.

But the first typewriter shares a significant feature with nearly every English-alphabet keyboard today: the QWERTY arrangement of the keys. Back then, the idea was to separate the most frequently used letters so they were less likely to jam.