It did just one thing. One. It put words on paper.
It didn’t conjure up spreadsheets or do fancy things with images. You hit a key and hey presto: there was a letter on a page.
Hit the keys again and again, and you can hear the melody of the manual typewriter. The chorus of the carriage return. The satisfying rhythmic beat of keys against paper and platen. A page that has been physically created — no matter what it says or how it says it — has an authority you cannot argue with. A typed page is an official page. Every letter on that paper has cost someone a physical effort.
A key strikes a ribbon which transfers ink onto paper. How simple is that? Simpler than moveable type.
Yet, in typewritten form, a demand suddenly becomes more demanding. A summons more importunate. This isn’t a handwritten billet-doux: this is serious.
Of course, authoritative though they may have been, typewriters were not without their flaws. The typewriter jammed and came to a stop when you hit more than one key at once and the keys became entangled with each other. (Much fishing about required.) Ribbons ran out. You had a very limited ability to tab, or to correct mistakes.
You needed to use carbon paper in between the pages if you wanted more than one copy. (This is before affordable photocopying.) I have held carbon paper. I know its fiddly little flurries and the blue-fingerprint wretchedness of making a copy. I am very glad I can carbon copy (cc) you these days on email with no blue fingers to show for it.
The machines came with no grammar correction, no spell checker, definitely no autocorrect, no language diplomacy. You needed to consider your choice of words carefully.
Nowadays, we have laser printers, email, Twitter, and a hundred other means of telling someone their payment is due, their rent is behind, or they have gone overdrawn at the bank. Nevertheless, we have enshrined the vocabulary of manual typewriters in our electronic age.
I used to physically Shift up the whole mechanism when I wanted a capital letter, and I still hit the shift key today, although nothing moves.
I hit Return when I want a paragraph break, although no carriage satisfyingly returns to its starting position.
We still use the familiar QWERTY keyboard, too, even though there’s nothing to jam any more.
Although the last typewriter factory in the world closed its doors in 2011, those doors may need to open again. Apparently, security services are considering — in this cyber-insecure age — going back to communicating between themselves using the humble typewriter.
I see the merits. Try hacking an Olivetti.
One thought on “The humble typewriter”
Manual typewriters didn’t need electricity, either. And they had no memory; they couldn’t remember what you wrote. Although that doesn’t mean what you typed couldn’t vanish. TE Lawrence left the first typescript of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the tea room at Reading Station. A thousand pages. He never got them back.