Posted tagged ‘typewriters’

The lost world of typewriters

September 26, 2008

One of my very earliest memories is of a typewriter. An electric typewriter, in fact, and it was located in my father’s office. And as a boy of four or so years , every so often I was allowed to sit at this wonderful machine and write something. In fact I could neither read nor write, so all that happened was that I hit the keys and filled a page or two. Afterwards my mother and sister would pore over the output, and would try to find actual words. If you remember the infinite monkey theory – i.e. that if you give an infinite number of monkeys a typewriter each, then over a period of time one of them will eventually produce one of Shakespeare’s plays – I could have been one of those monkeys.

About four years later I remember asking my parents for a typewriter for Christmas. I got one, but a toy one with a ball instead of keys, which you tuned manually to produce the letter you wanted to print. I was so disappointed not to have received a ‘real’ typewriter. But in fact I should have been impressed, because the basic technology of that machine was not long afterwards to be turned into the concept behind the IBM ‘golfball’ typewriter (more properly called the IBM Selectric).

Later on, in early adulthood and at the beginning of my professional life, I acquired a number of typewriters (nine, if I recall correctly), and eventually the holy grail for me was to get one with an output that looked printed rather than typed – making the arrival of proportional spacing particularly desirable.

Then came computers and printers, and typewriters became something antique – it happened almost overnight. I still held on to my last one for a while, finding it convenient to use it to address envelopes. But eventually I began to feel it was clogging up my desk, and it disappeared somewhere into a cupboard.

The other day I found one of my old typewriters: an Adler. I took it out of the dusty cupboard, wiped it clean, stuck in a piece of paper and clattered away. The sheer nostalgic joy of hearing the keys hit the drum, and the sight of the typos that were there immune from the power of the backspace button. What a feeling! The ribbon was badly faded, but you could still read the output. And even when the keys hit each other and got stuck somewhere just off the page, this too seemed to prompt such wonderful memories of shouted expletives.

I’m not sure if anyone still sells new typewriters, but there is a good trade in places like eBay. I could sell mine (I believe it is a particularly desirable model in the hands of collectors), but I think I’ll hold on to it as a reminder of this amazingly low-tech method of home-made printing. And I’ll put my old fountain pen right next to it.


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