The Romance

of typewriters?

I don’t find them romantic. I wouldn’t be able to write anywhere near as much (or as well) as I do without a computer. When I hear about Dick Cheney writing his memoirs in long hand, I cringe. I could never do it — I find the act of dragging a writing implement across paper (and not writing, but actually, printing — I gave up on cursive about the eighth grade) sheer physical drudgery. It’s kind of amazing that I managed to get through college in the pre-word-processing days. I was so desperate for a keyboard with an editor that I actually used a DECWriter and text processor as one. I learned to type on my step-mother’s Selectric, but when I went to college all I could afford was a cheap Remington (manual) portable. I banged out some papers on it, some all nighters, but they would all have been better if I could have edited them. Give me the computer age.

12 thoughts on “The Romance”

  1. Just this morning I had to write a little note in a get well card to my brother, and spent nearly as much energy hoping the result would be legible, as thinking of what to say.

    When I was a kid I even wrote whole book-length stories out longhand (though never cursive) but that was when the only alternative was a manual typewriter — which wasn’t available when killing time in the hallway at school.

    As for cursive, I’m in such a bad way that if I were ever offered witness protection and a new identity, I’d have to decline. I can sign the name my parents gave me, and that’s it.

  2. I remember you having a conversation circa 1982 with Chuck Gould, my boss at Rockwell at the time. You (and I!) wanted a word processor to write with, instead of hand writing out material and giving it to a secretary to write.

    Chuck replied, “We got to the moon without word processors!”

    A total non-sequitor, of course, but still one of my favorite lines.

  3. I am such an awful typist. In college I managed to persuade my girlfriend to type one or two, but that meant I had to have them done with enough time for that, and that was unusual.

    And correcting errors was so difficult, it was just easier to find a word that made sense and matched the typing error than to try to erase. Large vocabularies are useful in many ways.

    Never again without a text editor!

  4. I learned to type on a teletype. It sucked. I wrote my college papers on an electric typewriter. It sucked almost as bad as a teletype. Word processing alone is enough to justify owning a computer. They can take my word processor from my cold, dead hands.

    As for writing, I find it physically painful after a few minutes. My handwriting has completely gone to hell in the past 10 years or so. Even my signature is hardly legible any more.

  5. I grew up in the back of my dad’s typewriter store. I typed every school assignment that I was allowed to, from elementary school onwards. I used to clock in routinely at 110 words per minute on an electric, and that speed stays with me today on a computer keyboard; my dad could hit 100 on a MANUAL. I could even do footnotes, keeping the line counts in my head. I even had a chance to play with one of those god-awful expensive Selectric Composers that figured into the Dan Rather forgeries. (Cost as much as a nice new car.)

    When I cleaned out my Mom’s house, I stacked six working Selectric II correcting typewriters for trash pickup. Broke my heart. One of the finest pieces of electromechanical machinery ever available to the public.

    I called all over town for anyone willing to take them. Schools, Salvation Army, you name it. No one wanted them.

  6. Ah the days of the Underwood 5. I took typing in high school for almost the same reason what’s his name robbed banks. That’s where the girls were. Who knew it’d actually turn out useful? But I was really golden when the little backwoods church the wife-unit and I attended found out I could break a mimeograph machine to harness.

  7. You can do wonderful stuff with paper and pencil. Finished grade text processing, no, but for first drafts and notes and jotted down thoughts that might make it into a final manuscript after reflection and rewriting, slapping words onto paper this way is extraordinarily quick and easy– “intuitive” one might call it, or “transparent”.

    As for the late IBM selectric typewriters… those were absolutely wonderful machines. It’s always struck me as a huge mistake that IBM didn’t make something use something like the selectric as the basis for the keyboard on its first PCs. If they only had …. we’d probably still be using something like PC-DOS on our computers.

  8. Well, Professor Althouse is coming from a rather specialized point of view. 🙂

    I suspect the reason at least some people remember typewriters through an aura of romanticism is that they’re, well, old. A brand-new 1969 Rambler station wagon back in the day was a dull, mom’s car. Today, the same machine (in like-new condition) is a classic. We can see a similar phenomenon working in the popularity of the “Crosley” radio produced in a 1930s style, but using modern electronics, including a CD player. In fact, Greg Kinnear’s character in You’ve Got Mail exhibits a bit of a fetish about using a “low tech” electric typewriter, instead of a modern “soulless” computer.

    There weren’t any personal computers when I learned how to type in high school on an electric typewriter, although during my final year (’77) I discovered the teletype terminal to SWORCC (Southwestern Ohio Regional Computer Center) in a utility room off of one of the math classrooms. Communicated via an acoustic-coupler modem at the blazing speed of 300 bps, with punched-tape storage. The TTY layout was just different enough I felt constrained to type carefully.

    My first computer was a CP/M Epson QX-10. One of the reasons I fell in love with it was the keyboard, which closely resembles the later Model M 102-key layout. I HATED the PC/XT layout, although the tactile & audible feedback were fantastic. When I finally bowed to fate and bought an MS-DOS system (Compaq Portable), I was very unhappy for a while. What finally consoled me was the far greater availability of software for MS-DOS.

    That’s when I discovered the wonderful world of word processors. My first real editor (who here remembers EDLIN?) was the Turbo Pascal 2.0 IDE. Not too fancy, but it was very quick.

    The first actual word processor I bought was Wordvision, which allowed Norton’s Integrator-style long file names, and rendered fairly painless operations such as switching from single-space to double, footnotes, indentation, and general formatting. Sounds quite tame now, but back then it was great, considering I got it at B. Dalton’s for $40!. Alas, you still had to learn your printer’s escape codes in order to set up the program, but once you got that set up properly, it was just a case of hitting the proper F-key for bold, etc.

    Like Mike Shupp I enjoy doing first-stage thinking with pencil & paper, and very much prefer that while doing one-on-one editing. On the other hand, that proves cumbersome when developing team documents; and area where MS Word shines. I have to say that copy & paste, search and replace, and re-paginating are the three of the greatest Godsends of word processors.

    In parting, I can tell that Mike is a youngster {grin}, else he would remember that every computer company on the planet (including Compaq) made exact copies of that stinking PC/XT layout just to be as “IBM compatible” as possible. Apparently bean-counters were too dumb to understand that keyboard layout is independent of the operating system…

    Even today all the equipment makers are copying MS by imitating the hideous new keyboard they’ve introduced the past couple years. Urk.

  9. It is a bit like people who like horses. They look great until you actually look at a pile of dung, or learn how incredibly skittish those beasts are.

    I still remember typewriters. Stuck keys. Having to manually change tapes. Electric typewriters seemed great in comparison until I found out you could actually edit a document before printing on a word processor. Now *that* was awesome.

  10. Writing was invented by Michael Schrayer when he released Electric Pencil for CP/M. There was an activity which went by the same name before that, when people didn’t know any better.

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