Stories of things: Early 20th century typewriter

Stories of things: Early 20th century typewriter
Mercedes 3 typewriter. 1912. Germany. Tsaritsyno Museum Estate
Find out how an old German typewriter joined the collection of the Tsaritsyno Museum Estate, who created QWERTY keyboards and why male secretaries were called typists.

The protagonist of this story is a German made Mercedes-3 typewriter with a Russian keyboard dated 1912. Such typewriters were sold in Russia for quite a bit of time, up until the year 1917, so this one really is an antique. reveals how it landed in Moscow, how typewriters came into being and were then used all over the world.

First steps

The idea to create a device that could quickly type clear text had haunted the minds of human beings for a very long time. The first patent for the invention of a "Machine for Transcribing Letters" was given to the English engineer, Henry Mill in the year 1714. However, no information or images of this particular typewriter survived. The next attempt was made almost a century later, in 1808, by the Italian, Pellegrino Turri, who was responsible for inventing carbon paper too. He designed his own typewriter, but it is also unknown what it looked like: only letters typed on it survived.

Russian Empire inventors also tried to create a typewriter. In 1870, engineer Mikhail Alisov presented his device, called “skoropechatnik,” or “high-speed typist.” The Russian typographic typewriter was put on show at several international trade fairs and received good feedback. However, it was never mass produced due to its high cost.

Mikhail Alisov’s “high-speed typewriter.” 1870. Illustration from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890−1907)

Mark Twain types

The manufacturing of typewriters became possible thanks to the invention in 1868 of the American, Christopher Sholes. He patented a square box with a keyboard resembling a piano. During the next several years or so, Sholes designed about 50 different sorts of typewriters. In 1873, he presented his latest invention to E. Remington and Sons, manufacturers of firearms and sewing machines. The first such typewriters were made available in 1874. American writer Mark Twain was among the buyers. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is believed to have been the first novel typed on such a device.

Sholes continued to work on his invention experimenting on the location of the keys in order to make typing as comfortable as possible. The first QWERTY keyboard, which is used in computers and smartphones today, was presented in the first model of Sholes’s typewriter. However, it only really became popular when touch typing was invented. It was tested on his model 2.

QWERTY keyboard of the typewriter in the US patent No.207 559 issued to Christopher Sholes on 27 August 1878

Evolution of machines

A lot of companies manufacturing typewriters had opened come the start of the 20th century, including Mercedes established by Gustav Metz in Berlin in 1906. It has nothing to do with the famous automobile company: their representatives even had a dispute over the name, but reached a consensus: Metz it seems could produce anything he liked except vehicles under this name.

The first model of the typewriter was released for sale in 1907. The manufacturing was slow: only three typewriters per day could be produced at the small factory in Berlin. In 1908 Gustav Metz moved his company to Zella-Mehlis (Thuringia) and opened a larger manufacturing facility there. Back then, it issued the second model that could be divided into three parts making it possible to type in different languages.

Over the course of several years, the company brought out more sophisticated models: 3, 4, 5, 6 Express, Favorit, Express S 6 and many others. Elektra issued in 1921 was revolutionary: it was the first electromechanical typewriter in the world.

Typewriters advertised in the All Moscow reference book


At the beginning of the 20th century, almost all the paperwork in Russia had switched over to typescript. Typesetters were initially called remingtonists, and then, when there were more typewriters, they were called typists. The name only had feminine gender, because the Russian word “machinist” had a different meaning. Moreover, the position was mostly occupied by females but a male’s job description was also “typist”, like women.

Imported models of typewriters were mostly sold by special firms in Russia. The T.I. Gagen trading association, which initially sold stationery, manufactured office books and produced rubber stamps, was one of the largest distributors. In the end, the association focused on selling typewriters, cash registers and calculating machines.

Mercedes 3 typewriter. 1912. Germany. Tsaritsyno Museum Estate

In Russia, typewriters produced by the Gustav Metz’s firm (the Russified name was spelled “Мерцедесъ”) were not sold for long: only for a few years before WWI and for a short time after the 1917 October Revolution. All the inscriptions on the typewriter were made in Russian and, in addition to the manufacturer’s name, included the seller’s advertisement.

The rare 1912 Mercedes 3 typewriter is kept in the collection of the Tsaritsyno Museum Estate. It belonged to Georgy Yeremin, a local historian, journalist and writer, who helped find out when Penza and several other places along the Kurskaya Railway between Moscow and Tula were founded.

The historian’s daughter, Lyudmila Yeremina, presented the exhibit to the museum. She recalls that her father bought the typewriter from someone in the 1960s when he began studying local history. During the Perestroika era, the historian bought a new one, but the previous typewriter was kept carefully in the family. It has been part of the Tsaritsyno Dacha permanent exhibition since 2017.