From Handwriting to Typewriting

“It is probable that longhand will persist-at least until
inventions have made the typewriter as easy to carry
as a pen or pencil and within financial reach of all.”

Alice E. Benbow, 1925
(as cited in Templin, 1960, p. 164)


The earliest script by a human hand dates from 4000 BC (Ong, 1982). Typewriting machines were not in use in any significant numbers until the 1880s.  By the 1890s every business had at least one (KUHF-FM & Lienhard, 2000).  During those 6000 years or so, a multitude of media and tools were invented to record human messages for a wide variety of purposes.   For example, papyrus rolls were improved and transformed into the codex; expensive handwritten books became cheaper and more plentiful with printed books.  Jay David Bolter (2001) characterizes each major historical shift in writing media as remediation.  In this paper, I will examine how typewriting remediated hand written communication.

Invention and Cultural Impact

The historical record regarding the invention of the typewriter is populated by many attempts to build a typing machine (Acocella, 2007).  As many as thirty significant attempts were made including one of the earliest in 1829 with a machine called ‘Burt’s typographer’ (Hoke, 1979).   It was not until 1867 that the seed of the modern typewriter was built by Christopher Lathan Sholes. Over the next six years, he improved his machine with the help of others including Charles Glidden (Rehr, 1996). There were several improvements made to his design and, coinciding with the appearance of competing type writing machines in the early 1880s, the typewriter as a business machine gained wide acceptance and became a commercially successful product by the late 1880s (KUHF-FM & Lienhard, 2000; Hoke, 1979).

Public Domian Image - Source:

Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, manufactured by Remington & Sons between 1874 and 1878. About 5000 were made.

Once the typewriter had evolved into a reliable and relatively easy to use machine, it became clear that it offered some obvious advantages over handwritten communication.  By the end of the 1880s, the reliability of the typewriter as a business device was realized.  Detailed histories do exist of these developments (e.g., Monaco, 1998).  It should be noted that for most of the twentieth century, typewriters were used as the dominant tool to create formal messages in almost all western societies.  For example, in the foreign affairs office of the United States, the typewriter “replaced the longstanding tradition of handwritten pen-and-ink communications … improved the legibility of documents and speeded their preparation” (Mattox, n.d., para. 4).

New technologies are often criticized.  Among other objections to early typewritten documents (e.g., blurriness) perhaps the most salient is the social implication of a typed document.  As the remediation of handwritten communication progressed towards typewritten communication, many people viewed the typed page as impersonal, discourteous and a violation of privacy (Mattox, n.d.).  Usually, clerks typed the handwritten documents that were created by the author, thus introducing a third party privy to the content of the message.  Additionally, the receipt of a typewritten document was sometimes taken personally, the insult arising from the implication that he or she could not read handwritten script.  The etiquette question regarding handwritten versus typewritten communication became a hotly debated issue appearing in magazine articles and letters to newspaper editors around the year 1900 (Mattox, n.d.).   Arguments were made that emphasized the gains and losses of this new text technology; O’Donnell (1998) has emphasized that this pattern of losses and gains is almost always apparent in the adoption of new text technologies.

The other culturally significant effect of the widespread adoption of the typewriter, at least in the United States, is that women entered the business workforce as typists in significant numbers (Lubar & Kendrick, n.d.).  Hoke (1979) emphasizes early in his discourse, however, that while the typewriter was the key element that led to rapid social change regarding the feminization of the business workplace, it was not the only factor.  For example, female employees were commonly paid less than males.  Add to that fact that a competent typist could type 30 words per minute faster than normal handwriting; the need for typists rapidly increased and caused a surge in female clerical staff.  A detailed study of the social changes brought on by the typewriter and the influx of women into the workforce is beyond the scope of this paper but Hoke’s research is an astounding case study worthy of more attention.

In terms of gains and losses, the following table summarizes those that arose during this remediation:

Handwriting Typewriting Source(s)
Illegible Legible
(Hoke, 1979), (Mattox, n.d.)
Slow to produce Fast to produce
(Hoke, 1979), (Mattox, n.d.)
Personal Impersonal
(Mattox, n.d.), (KUHF-FM & Lienhard, 2000)
Private Not private
(Mattox, n.d.)

However, none of these aspects address the impact of these technologies on cognitive processes underlying their use.  What are the implications of typing ideas into a typewriting versus handwriting them?  What was the effect on reading, writing and education?

Handwriting to typewriting: Reading, writing, and education

One might guess that writing by hand and typing on a machine activate different areas of the brain. And, if this is the case, is there an impact on learning that can be directly tied to these differences?  Furthermore, should educators preferentially be selecting one the other for better quality learning?  Recent research by Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay (2010) makes it clear that different parts of the brain are activated in each of these modes and that there are other differences worthy of note.

Handwriting is primarily a unimanual (one hand used) process whereas typewriting is a bimanual (two hands used) process.   The implication for educators is connected to the fact that the left-hemisphere of the brain is responsible for linguistic processes.  If typing involves both hands in the creation of texts, then interhemisperic activity is assumed to be taking place.

The second difference outlined by Mangen and Velay lies in the fact that when writing by hand, one is focused spatially at the exactly point where the letters are formed on the page.  When typing, the attention of the author is split between the ‘motor space’ of the keyboard, where the manual work of touching the right letters takes places, and the ‘visual space’ which, in this case, is the paper where a letter appears after each key press.  The implication for educators is how relevant exactly is this disconnect between the motor and visual spaces to learning.

The third difference outlined is that, in handwriting, each letter formed has a specific and unique spatial movement that matches the shape of the letter; these are learned at the early stages of literacy development.   In typing, the locations of letters on the keyboard is spatially mapped in the brain and the letters appear preformed, not drawn, on paper when keys are hit.  The implication for educators is determining how significant a connection there is between the cognitions underlying a written text and the tools used to create the written text.

Mangen and Velay also point out specific experiments conducted with pre-readers that suggest that letter identification accuracy rates are higher when the child has learned letters through handwriting rather than through typing.   It would seem that brain areas that are stimulated with a motor movement that closes matches the physical shape of the letter results in better recognition at a later time when compared to a seeing the letter instantly formed visually after tapping a key.

Finally, there is ample introspective anecdotal evidence provided writers that emphasize that there is a personal connection between handwriting, composition, and thinking.  This is especially true for writers whom Daniel Chandler (2009) calls discoverers (i.e., writers who use writing as a way of discovering what they want to say).  For example, consider the following comment: “Rebecca West reported that she used a pencil ‘When anything important has to be written… I think your hand concentrates for you.’ She also emphasized the importance of kinaesthetic memory: ‘My memory is certainly in my hands. I can remember things only if I have a pencil and I can write with it and I can play with it’ (Plimpton, 1985).” (Chandler, 2009, para. 26). Clearly, there is much more going on here than merely placing small dark squiggles on a piece of paper.

Is handwriting dying?

Public Domain Image - Source:

Underwood Touch-Master 5 (early 1960s)

In December 1960, Elaine Templin conducted a study to answer the question: should teachers continue to teach handwriting in elementary schools?  She specifically pitted the then ubiquitous typewriter against handwriting and wondered if students would need handwriting in their adult life.

The bulk of her study was a detailed survey of the use of handwriting in various adult occupations and roles.  Due to the continued heavy use of handwriting in most occupations that she observed, she concluded that children should continue to be taught handwriting in the classroom: “Since elementary-school teachers cannot foresee the adult handwriting needs of each pupil, it seems essential that they encourage high standards and imbue each pupil with a respect for, and a pride in, attractive and legible handwriting” (Templin, 1960, p. 164).

This study is an intriguing analogue to the current debates (e.g., Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008) regarding what Prensky (2001) terms ‘digital natives’ and the questions around the continued use of so-called ‘legacy content’, that is, content and educational methods that are pre-digital age.  What makes this study even more fascinating is the inclusion of this quote near the end of her study:  “It is probable that longhand will persist-at least until inventions have made the typewriter as easy to carry as a pen or pencil and within financial reach of all” (Alice E. Benbow, 1925, as cited in Templin, 1960, p.164).


It is clear that the introduction of the typewriter into society in the late 1800s, and its later widespread use during most of the twentieth century, engendered discussions and tensions regarding changing text technologies, many of which have modern analogues.  Vigorously debated issues, such as the effect of the typewriter on the practice of handwriting, have been resurrected in current questions about mobile digital technology, hypertext, and the learning needs of current students (digital natives).  Additionally, educators must continue to examine how changes in the tools used in creating texts affects the thinking processes used to create them.


Acocella, J. (2007, April 9). The Typing Life: How writers used to write. The New Yorker.  Retrieved from

Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39: 775-786. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x

Bolter, J (2001). Writing Space. Computers, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. New York: Routledge.

Chandler, D. (2009). The phenomenology of writing by hand [online version]. Intelligent Tutoring Media, 3,2-3. Retrieved from

Haas, C. (1996). Writing technology: studies on the materiality of literacy [Online version]. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved from,+C.+(1996).+Writing+technology+:+studies+on+the+materiality+of+literacy&ots=yj0EkWHegK&sig=AggtrTQW_dEnEOwSngyqumkeQqc#v=onepage&q&f=false

Hoke, D. (1979). The Woman and the Typewriter: A Case Study in Technological Innovation and Social Change [Online version]. Business and Economic History, 2d ser., 8,76-88. Retrieved from

KUHF-FM (Producer) & Lienhard, J. H. (Writer). (2000). The Engines of Our Ingenuity: No. 1532: TYPEWRITERS [Radio broadcast]. Retrieved from

Ong, J. O. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

O’Donnell, J. (1998). Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lubar, S. & Kendrick, K. (n.d.) Artifacts reflect changes: Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History [web page]. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Retrieved from

Mangen, A. & Velay J.L. (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing. Journal of Advances in Haptics, 385-401.

Mattox, H. E. (n.d.) Technology and Foreign Affairs: The Case of the Typewriter

Monaco, C. (1998). The Difficult Birth of the Typewriter. Invention & Technology Magazine Spring/Summer 1988 Volume 4, Issue 1. Retrieved on October 17th, 2006, from:

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1.  On the Horizon, 9:5,1-6.

Rehr, D. (1996). The first typewriter [web page]. Retrieved from


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2 Responses to From Handwriting to Typewriting

  1. Jasmeet Virk says:

    Enjoyed reading your paper. I knew keyboarding stimulated different part of the brain compared to handwriting but had never thought about the difference made due to use of both hands for typing.
    Also I always use to say that my thought flow better when I am handwriting, but now I am getting really comfortable even with the keyboard. May be it is all about habit formation.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jasmeet! Yes, as I was writing this, I was recounting when I started to transition from my first draft being a written with a pen and paper to composing at the computer. I used to write my essays by hand during high school and then type them after I had editing them (this was early 1980s). Then, when I started university in 1987, I got an IBM-XT (for what I paid, I could have purchased a really nice iMac right now!). Anyway, it was on that computer that I started to get used to composing right into a word processor… WordPerfect actually. So, I think you are right in that it is kind of a habit… I did need to get used to it but I constantly felt like I wanted to pick up a pen and paper and start writing.

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