Royal Typewriter Keyboard

A Blogger Goes into Full Nostalgia Mode

Typewriters have a special niche in the history of technology. Many of us of certain age have a fond memory of using typewriters of various types before the technological upheaval of personal computers and printers turned writers away from them. For about a hundred years typewriters were considered state-of-the-art office equipment for correspondence, forms, and record keeping. For others, a typewriter was the interface mechanism between a writer and a manuscript. It wasn’t until the computer evolved from the 1940s Eniac to Apple’s LaserWriter which, coupled with a Macintosh, finally made the typewriter obsolete in 1985. Nevertheless, typewriters are still used today in offices, prisons, government agencies and in locations where the electric supply is still iffy.

Even the modern computer keyboard has many relics from the typewriter era: the backspace key, the shift key, the shift-lock (now caps lock), the tab key, the elongated spacebar, and the standard QWERTY layout in English-language keyboards.

IBM Typewriter with Manuscript Formats book

An IBM Typewriter with a standard manuscript formats book

Typewriter Memories

My first memories of typewriters were watching my father type on his “portable” Royal typewriter. He had earlier traveled through the Pacific theater during World War II as a typist and stenographer for the Army command. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, he worked as an editor for a labor newspaper, where typing was an essential task.

A Portable Royal Typewriter

A Royal typewriter similar to the one my father used to type on. At the time this was considered a portable typewriter.

I taught myself to type, on a basic manual typewriter, using lessons from a business encyclopedia that I borrowed from my Dad. So I skipped the hunt-and-peck method of typing, learning touch typing from the beginning. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, typing was necessary for school papers, dissertations, and formal letters. Perhaps my lessons as a flutist and bassoonist gave me some extra finger dexterity that helped my typing, too.

I remember taking a trip to New York City to buy myself a better typewriter before going to college. I didn’t have much money, so I went into one of those shops around Times Square that seemed to sell everything from radios, phonographs, cameras, stereo equipment and, of course, had a bunch of typewriters on display for various prices. The prices were much lower compared to those sold in the suburbs. In New York merchants believed it wasn’t how much profit you made from an individual sale, the important thing was to keep the merchandise moving off the shelves and out the door. They made up in volume what you couldn’t get in unit profit. The other reason that the prices were low might have been that a shipment of typewriters “fell off a truck” and somehow made their way to this particular merchant. I have no reason to believe that was the case and that I was dealing with stolen merchandise, but the prices did make me wonder.

This was a manual typewriter. I remember you really had to hit the keys pretty hard to get it to type. None of this sissy electric typewriter action – typing was a physical activity. Later, in college, I finally got an electric typewriter. During several summer breaks, I worked in offices as a typist. (I also worked a pretty mean 10-key adding machine.)

Old Church Typewriter

An old church typewriter with New Testament commentary and an old Bible in the background. With the five accounting keys on top, it must have been used to keep ledgers as well as to type sermons.

Many who grow up after the invention of the PC have no memory of how noisy typewriters were. Manual typewriters had distinctive and varied sounds, including the deep thunk of the keyboard shift when changing from capitals to lower case letters and figures; the quick clack when the platen moved to the left after each letter. The thwack of a type bar hitting through the ribbon to the paper was particularly satisfying. Also the bell ding when nearing the end of the line. You both felt and heard the ratchet when you started moving the return lever to change to the next line, followed by the grinding of the movement of the platen back to the right. The tab key initiated its own scraping sound when the spring forwarded the platen to the next mechanical tab stop, which ended with a loud clunk as the platen was violently arrested. The cacophony was particularly loud in older, heavy, metal office typewriters.

Electric typewriters changed many of the sounds, adding the mechanic-electric hum in the background (sometimes it was quite loud). The key mechanism gave a lighter, higher pitched tap striking the paper. When the IBM Selectric came out, where the moving letter-ball ran across a stationary platen, many of the clunks and bumps of the older typewriters were gone, but the mechanical bounce of the type-ball had it’s unique sound that also let others know instantly how fast a typist you were. I often tried to see if I could type faster than the type ball could spin, but I never could.

Electric Smith-Coirona typewriter

A discovered Smith-Corona in a church’s historical records room.

During grad school, I had a work-study job at Indiana University’s School of Optometry, as a typist, of course. I still fondly remember their Adler typewriters. They weren’t quite as cutting edge as IBM Selectrics, but they exuded the fine touches of German engineering.

All of the sounds created by the typewriter inspired composer Leroy Anderson to write a popular orchestra novelty piece called “The Typewriter,” where a percussionist or other typist had to actually use a manual typewriter for its key clacks, the bell sound (supplied by a second percussionist), and the ratcheting sound of the typewriter platen as it moved to the next line. When I played in the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, our conductor programmed this piece for school concerts in the 1990s. We quickly learned that the elementary-school-aged kids had no idea what a typewriter was, so they were clueless about the typing sounds in the piece! Since we already had a volunteer corps offering a pre-concert Orchestra Petting Zoo, we added a manual typewriter to the display of woodwind, brass, string and percussion instruments they could handle and try.

Another Smith-Corona typewriter

Another Smith-Corona typewriter

Whatever typewriter you used, it was a mechanical machine-monster; an odd contraption that made writing on paper faster, legible, permanent, and even made copies with carbon paper and extra sheets.

typewriter keys

Detail of a manual Royal Typewriter keyboard

Leaving Typewriters

So, in 1984, when I bought my first Macintosh computer, I began learning computerized word processing. I still remember a special edition of Writer’s Digest that explained, specifically to typewriter users, how to use the infinite page for notes, writing and editing. Writing was now different, more flexible, and more in tune to the creative urge – even if you were using something as non-user-friendly as MS-DOS (which we Mac users never did, of course). For a year or two, Mac users only had Apple’s MacWrite for a word processor. It was simple, by today’s standards, but had an elegant user interface. I sometimes still miss that program.

Coming Full Circle

Detail of a typewriter platen

Platen, type guide and ribbon holder for a Smith-Corona

Last summer, while driving my now 94-year-old father to garage sales, I started looking at old typewriters that nobody used anymore. It began with an estate sale where, wandering through the basement, I found a grime-covered 1920’s Royal typewriter with a broken platen, which I bought for $9. So I began to collect typewriters on the cheap. Now, though, I used them for photography instead of typing.

When our church started cleaning up its office and throwing out old office supplies, I grabbed up an older, electric IBM typewriter. Not a Selectric with the ball head, but a good daisy-wheel typewriter. And it still works! (The younger readers here will say, “What the heck was a daisy wheel typewriter?” And the oldsters will just chuckle.) It had controls for boldface, underlining each individual word automatically, spell-checking and whatnot. Man, if I had had THAT typewriter when I was in grad school, I could have made a lot more money typing papers and dissertations than I did typing correspondence.

A Return Key detail

Today, there are many people who have never used a typewriter. (Many never experienced a world without Macintosh computers, or the World Wide Web, or cell phones, either.) Even if we appear impossibly old when we talk about using typewriters and phones with dials, we can remember, also, how easy it was to make the transition from a typewriter to a computer keyboard.

If anybody has an unused and photogenic typewriter they would like to get rid of, please contact me and I’d be happy to photograph it for a future blog post. If you are interested in reading more about the history of typewriters, here are a few resources, below.

Detail of antique typewriter - in Vlogging, Podcasting and Image Blogging

A Royal typewriter from the 1920s.

To Learn More

Wikipedia offers a fairly extensive article on the history of the typewriter.

The site, mental-floss, offers an illustrated Brief History of the Typewriter.

The Atlantic’s website offers a short video based on a World War II era film, presenting A Very Brief Visual History of the Typewriter, complete with the stentorian narration familiar to those who remember cinema news-reels. Part of its “Old, Weird Tech” series.

Collectors Weekly offers a nice overview of Early Typewriters of the Late 1800s by Martin Howard.

And if you want an idea of the vast variety of early typewriters, just go to Google images, and enter “early typewriters” into the search box.

Photo Credits

All photos are by the author, Andrew Brandt, copyright © 2016 and 2017. Photographic effects were created using Adobe Photoshop CC and various Topaz Labs plugins, including Adjust, BW Effects, Glow, Impression and Texture Effects.

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