One of the fundamental changes in office practice in the past fifty years has been the total eclipse of the typewriter.
Until the early 1980s, the typewriter, which had flourished for over a hundred years, ruled the office roost. It reached its apogee (although open to discussion) with the IBM Selectric, the wonder of the 1960s. Those whirring golfball type heads were no less than miraculous in the 1960s and still impress with their electro-mechanical perfection. But there were drawbacks.
The wonders of modern science: A little golfball with all the letters of the alphabet (even the Hebrew alfabet as here) arranged haphazardly. This 60-year-old technology still impresses
Pica? Yes, Sir. Elite? Yes, Sir. Helvetica? No, Sir. There were golfballs for several styles of fixed-space font (swap the ball for italic….). But if you wanted proportional spacing, the Selectric morphed into the much more expensive IBM Composer, a device of greater gravitas which was the saviour of many a small publishing business.
The Composer could even justify lines by a complicated process of type and re-type. At the time, justification was the grail; now I’ve come full circle and prefer to have a ragged right margin when I’m writing.
To the end, though, the portable typewriter, such as the Olivetti Lettera 32 or the Olympus Traveller, was the journalist’s mainstay. I remember lugging a Lettera 32 around with me as I would now carry an iPad or a MacBook.
Blogging by typewriter
Leica photographer and blogger, Nick de Marco, seems to share my love of the typewriter. I’ve been impressed by his efforts to blog by typewriter.
Surely some mistake? Well, you can type an article and then scan the finished page. It’s a bit indulgent and certainly much slower than writing on the computer, but I applaud Nick’s initiative. His review of the Olivetti Letter 32 brings back memories.
Memories of producing a 50-page proposal and then reviewing the results before sending it off to the client. Apart from being unable to add a paragraph or, even a sentence, without retyping several pages, the pain of finding a typo was acute. Especially at five in the evening when the report had to catch the last post. No, on balance I don’t really fancy returning to The Good Old Days.
Nick De Marco’s review of his Olivetti Letter 32, on the Olivetti Lettera 32
The typewriter was doomed from the late seventies when companies started introducing semi-electronic machines with a rudimentary memory. One such, made by Olivetti, graced my office. The text was composed in a tiny single-line window and results stored on an extremely small (I seem to remember 2in diameter) floppy disk, ready to be regurgitated as a letter after painstaking correction. Soon, personal computers began to take over.
Enter the computer
After a disappointing experiment with a Tandy TRS80 computer (which never produced a useful thing under my care), we went pro with the grandiosely named Superbrain computer. On this beast — we had several of them in our office — I was introduced to word processing in the soft shape of WordStar. Soon, I could make WordStar sing and I still have fond memories of this system which, in syntax, was rather akin to using modern Markup. Indeed, ∧B, which WordStar used before and after a word or sentence to force bold type, does exactly the same in modern Markdown. Later we defected to the early DOS version of Microsoft Word before fully embracing Windows in the early nineties.
By that time the typewriter was virtually dead. I hear that it still flourishes (along with the essential carbon paper for copies and Tipp-Ex for corrections) in India and other countries. But in most of the word the typewriter is now consigned to the junk shops and a few specialist emporia. It’s a great a pity. There is nothing quite as satisfying as pounding away on a typewriter with its long-travel keys and ever-present danger of clashing type-bars. And that noise! Clatter, clatter. I can still remember the sound of a busy typing pool on the sixth floor of a City of London insurance behemoth. It was music to the ears….
Above: My all-time favourite portable typewriter, the Olympia Traveller de Luxe. This style of typing, though, is known as “hunt and peck”. Fittingly, it is epitomised by the transposition in the title of this video. Miss Moneypenny and her ilk, on the other hand, were trained to within and inch of their lives and could type by touch, using all fingers and thumbs, at high speed and with 100% accuracy.
I have fond memories of the old Imperials, Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons which were distributed around our office at The Motor Cycle when I was a budding journalist. There were so many of them, all pre-War and dating back to the 1920s, that I could try a new one every day. I was particularly fond of a Remington Noiseless which aspired, not entirely successfully, to dampen the clackety-clack.
Best of the bunch
By far the better typewriters of the bunch, though, were the modern standard office machines made by the German Olympia and Swiss Hermes companies. These were true Rolls Royce tools compared with the ancient Imperials, etc, and were much more satisfying to use, producing a far more regular line of type, than the then current portables. An Olympia SG-3 would probably be my all-time favourite desktop manual.
To this day, however, I retain a couple of working portable typewriters, an Olivetti and an Olympia. I also hold on to some old Imperials and Smith Coronas that badly need servicing and no longer work.
Occasionally, though, I’ll drag one of the portables from the cupboard and pound out a letter or two, just for old time’s sake. But I soon get frustrated by the inability to make corrections on the fly. We are now so used to instant gratification when it comes to changing what we’ve written. I suspect, too, we are less accurate than we used to be. When one misplaced letter in a document meant retyping an entire page, the mind was concentrated on accuracy. Now, with the backspace key acting as an eraser and the dubious assistance of predictive text, we have become lazy. We know that we can correct our mistakes in no time at all (or leave it to the computer to make a bad guess) and without leaving an eraser mark or white smudge on the final document.
If I had a choice of manual typewriters, this Olympia SG-3 would always be top of the list. These machines produces some of the most regular and neat script of any of its contemporaries
QWERTY lives on
The odd thing about all this, though, is that while the typewriter is as dead as the dodo, the most antiquated part of the jigsaw flourishes on all our modern computers, tablets and smartphones. Yes, the singular QWERTY keyboard (said to have been designed to slow down the user and avoid clashing of type-bars) lives on. Incidentally, I don’t but that argument. I think the QWERTY keyboard was designed to make typing of the English language as easy as possible. Imagine an ABCDE keyboard; I do not think it would be as efficient.
When the first computers slavishly adopted dear old QWERTY, the future of the keyboard layout was assured. Despite attempts to invent a better mousetrap, such as in the Dvorak keyboard (which appeared on a number of specialist typewriters and is still available as a computer keyboard), almost everyone now uses QWERTY. Whereas thirty or forty years ago only secretaries (almost all of whom were female) and journalists could touch type, modern youth has taken to QWERTY in a big way.
I am amazed at the speed and competence of most computer users under 30. Most can type faster than Miss Moneypenny in her heyday. As a former journalist, I do have a certain turn of speed on the keyboard, but most men of my age do not. They were used to braying into a dictating machine and relying on an efficient secretary with her IBM Selectric in the outer office. As a result, there is a whole lost generation (usually over 50) who never learned to type properly. Many older women and most younger people of both sexes are quite likely to have the required QWERTY skills.