Where have all the typewriters gone?

Future Tense for Oct. 25, 2007

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

Where have all the typewriters gone and when did they go away?

It occurred to me, over the past weekend, that it might be a lot faster to address envelopes with a typewriter than my computer. When I need to address an envelope, I bring up Microsoft Word, go through the rigamarole involved in typing an address, load envelope stock in my printer and tell the printer routine on my computer to adapt its output for a No. 10 envelope. That's not hard, but it's nowhere near as easy as scrolling an envelope into a typewriter. And what do you do when you have to address a large manila envelope? I usually use an ink pen, but I'll bet the post office's sorters curse my handwriting every time they see it.

I can't remember the last time I saw a typewriter. Some young people today may have never seen one.

My youngest son was born in 1992, the same year when Microsoft Windows 3.1 and Michelangelo, the first great computer virus, were born. His oldest brother and Microsoft Windows 1.0 were born, both premature, in 1985. In my youngest son’s only memory of using a typewriter, he is sitting on his grandmother’s lap, pushing the keys on her old Smith-Corona, and seeing letters appear almost magically on a piece of paper. His older brother can actually remember using one of our electric typewriters to write a paper in elementary school. My sons probably haven’t seen a working typewriter since 1996.

At the time, typewriters were 188 years old.

No one really invented the typewriter. It resulted from a number of people’s contributions. Pellegrino Turri (who also invented carbon paper) in 1808 developed a writing machine for blind people. Curiously, for the next 90 years and as late as 1915, being blind was no hindrance to using such machines, because people could not see what they were typing — the keys struck from underneath or behind the paper.

The first “visible” typewriters did not appear until 1895.

Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule invented a typewriter in the 1860s that actually allowed an operator to type faster than people could write. They sold their patents to E. Remington & Sons, who began producing commercial typewriters in 1873. Sholes also invented the QWERTY keyboard named for the first six letters on the top row.

I guess I should explain, for young readers’ sake, that the original typewriters had a set of long bars, each carrying the raised image of an upper- or lower-case letter, a punctuation mark or a number. When you pressed a key, a lever pushed the bar up and forward to strike an inked piece of fabric (or, later, a plastic tape coated with carbon) and transfer the ink onto paper. A complex mechanical system moved the paper sideways to add new letters and up or down to add new lines. In their desks, typists routinely kept A-1 machine oil to lubricate the keys, a bottle of Dr. Scat to clean lint out of letters and a bottle of “White Out” to make corrections.

Lubrication was important. Dirt and lint caused jams. So did striking two keys too close to one another. Sholes supposedly invented the QWERTY keyboard to minimize jamming. Some cynics believe it was a marketing trick, because sales people could dash out the word “typewriter” (the letters are all on the top row). QWERTY keyboards let typists do similar tricks with one-handed words such as “stewardess” and “monopoly.”

Standard courses in touch typing appeared in the late 1800s. They trained people’s fingers to “find” the letters from a starting point — such as the “f” and “j” or “d” and “k” keys — and type without looking at the keys themselves. After 100 years, touch typing remains a distant second to the popular Hunt & Peck system, which says a lot about the “simplicity” of a QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately, alternatives the Dvorak keyboard never caught on, although they require less effort and produce fewer cases of carpal-tunnel strain.

What really increased typing speeds were power-assisted “electric” typewriters from Smith-Corona, Underwood, Royal and others. IBM trumped them all with the Selectric.

The first IBM Selectric appeared in 1961. Instead of typebars, it used a pivoting ball carrying the entire alphabet, numbers and special characters. Balls could be changed easily to use different fonts. The Selectric II added a correction feature with a separate spool of white tape to obliterate mistakes.

You can still buy Selectrics, whose three models have proved remarkably durable. Many sell for $50 to $150 on eBay.

On the other hand, you can buy antique typewriters, such as a 1903 Smith Premier No. 4 in its original case, now bid up to $325 with six days to go.

For that kind of money, of course, you can get a decent desktop computer.

However, the computer won’t print letters on paper while you type. That’s an experience soon to be lost to generations who will never know the chatter, smells and bells of an old-fashioned typewriter ... in the future.

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Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/49. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net