Christopher Latham Sholes (February 14, 1819 – February 17, 1890) was an American inventor who invented the first practical typewriter and the QWERTY keyboard still in use today. He was also a newspaper publisher and Wisconsin politician.
Born in Mooresburge, Pennsylvania, Sholes moved to nearby Danville, Pennsylvania and worked there as an apprentice to a printer. After completing his apprenticeship, Sholes moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1837, and later to Southport, Wisconsin (present-day Kenosha). He became a newspaper publisher and politician, serving in the Wisconsin State Senate from 1848-1849 as a Democrat, in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1852-1853 as a Free Soiler, and again in the Senate as a Republican from 1856–1857. He was instrumental in the successful movement to abolish capital punishment in Wisconsin: his newspaper, The Kenosha Telegraph, reported on the trial of John McCaffary in 1851, and then in 1853 he led the campaign in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
Typewriters had been invented as early as 1714 by Henry Mill and reinvented in various forms throughout the 1800s. It was to be Sholes, however, who invented the first one to be commercially successful. Sholes had moved to Milwaukee and became the editor of a newspaper. Following a strike by compositors at his printing press, he tried building a machine for typesetting, but this was a failure and he quickly abandoned the idea.
He arrived at the typewriter through a different route. His initial goal was to create a machine to number pages of a book, tickets, and so on. He began work on this at Kleinsteubers machine shop in Milwaukee, together with a fellow printer Samuel W. Soule, and they patented a numbering machine on November 13, 1866.
Sholes and Soule showed their machine to Carlos Glidden, a lawyer and amateur inventor at the machine shop working on a mechanical plow, who wondered if the machine could not be made to produce letters and words as well. Further inspiration came in July 1867, when Sholes came across a short note in Scientific American describing the "Pterotype", a prototype typewriter that had been invented by John Pratt. From the description, Sholes decided that the Pterotype was too complex and set out to make his own machine, whose name he got from the article: the typewriting machine, or typewriter.
The Scientific American article (unillustrated) had figuratively used the phrase "literary piano"; the first model that the trio built had a keyboard literally resembling a piano. It had black keys and white keys, laid out in two rows. It did not contain keys for the numerals 0 or 1 because the letters O and I were deemed sufficient.
The first row was made of ivory and the second of ebony, the rest of the framework was wooden. It was in this form that Sholes, Glidden and Soule were granted patents for their invention on June 23, 1868 and July 14.
Realizing that stenographers would be among the first and most important users of the machine, and therefore best in a position to judge its suitability, they sent experimental versions to a few stenographers. The most important of them was James O. Clephane, of Washington D.C., who tried the instruments as no one else had tried them, subjecting them to such unsparing tests that he destroyed them, one after another, as fast as they could be made and sent to him.
Sholes took his advice and set to improve the machine at every iteration, until they were satisfied that Clephane had taught them everything he could. By this time, they had manufactured 50 machines or so, at an average cost of $250. In early 1873 they approached Remington and Sons (which later became the Remington Arms Company), who decided to buy the patent from them. Sholes sold his half for $12,000, while Densmore, still a stronger believer in the machine, insisted on a royalty, which would eventually fetch him $1.5 million.
Sholes returned to Milwaukee and continued to work on new improvements for the typewriter throughout the 1870s, which included the QWERTY keyboard (1873). James Densmore had suggested splitting up commonly used letter combinations in order to solve a jamming problem caused by the slow method of recovering from a keystroke: weights, not springs, returned all parts to the "rest" position. This concept was later refined by Sholes and the resulting QWERTY layout is still used today on both typewriters and English language computer keyboards, although the jamming problem no longer exists.
Sholes died on February 17, 1890 after battling tuberculosis for nine years, and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee.