Home Features Workflow: The humble typewriter through rose-coloured glasses

Workflow: The humble typewriter through rose-coloured glasses

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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 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 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 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. 

Do you still hanker after the simplicity, the clamour, the Tipp-Ex and the carbon paper that was the lot of the typist? Or have we reached nirvana with today’s word processing and capable plain-text editors? Do you belong to the lost generation?

Even people who never used a typewriter in anger are falling in love with the little devils

17 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t belong to that “lost generation”, as I – like you, Mike – worked as a journalist, and hammered out my stories on a portable Olivetti ..which I was given as a goodbye gift when I quit from the old “Practical Photography” to go into computer magazines.

    But would I go back to manual focus? ..I mean, go back to manual error correction? ..Never! (..All that fiddling with Tipp-Ex papers, slid between the ribbon and the document paper, to re-type your mistake using the white transfer from the Tipp-Ex, and then re-type the letter correctly with the ribbon ..or dabbing-on Tipp-Ex fluid, hanging around for it to dry, and then re-typing over the top of it ..are you serious?!..)

    I remember the arrival of Philips – was it? – single-line-correction typewriters, and correctable IBMs, and then Wang word-processors (computers, really, but with just a single word-processing program built in).

    But the ‘Superbrain’! Yup; I bought one (secondhand, somewhere in Croydon) for my uncle, who wanted to write his memoirs, at what ..age 70, maybe?

    I explained to him all about using the floppy – they really were floppy! – discs, and the disc drives, and WordStar, of course. And the CP/M operating system. He started with the – huge, heavy – SuperBrain, then migrated to an Amstrad PCW (‘Personal Computer Word-processor’, but which doubtless grabbed a zillion sales from using the same initials as the then desktop computer bible ‘Personal Computer World’ magazine).

    After that he traded up to a primitive, but sleek, PC or three, and I finally weaned him onto a Mac mini, to avoid all the slowdowns and hitches and malware he got with his various PCs.

    He was into his eighties by the time he migrated to a Mac, but he slipped into Macdom without a single problem. And he finished his memoirs on that mini.

    Typing? ..Well, the name remains, or the verb ‘to type’, but though it holds many happy memories, it’s like asking if I’d go back to film. Perhaps occasionally, for nostalgia’s sake, but for day-to-day use? Certainly not!

    I remember – here ‘e goes again – seeing the Apple ‘Lisa’ at a (PCW?) computer fair in London, at the Barbican (..what had been designed as a carpark was turned into a claustrophobia-inducing, low-ceilinged, hothouse Barbican exhibition hall..) and marvelling at the not mono-spaced, but proportional-spaced font (fount) in Letraset’s ‘Ready, set, go!’ word-processing program on the Lisa ..and then being invited to Apple’s then Hemel Hempstead HQ, signing a 3-page non-disclosure agreement, being led into a room with a smaller, upright beige version of the Lisa (..this was November 1983..) and being asked to try it and say what I thought of it. That was the yet-to-be-released ‘Macintosh’. With proportional fonts.

    So, er.. what was the question again? “Do you still hanker after the simplicity, the clamour, the Tipp-Ex and the carbon paper that was the lot of the typist?” ..No.

    “..have we reached nirvana with today’s word processing and capable plain-text editors?..” No. (And you haven’t even mentioned speech-to-text programs like Dragon’s ‘Naturally Speaking’, or dictating text messages via Siri..) “..Do you belong to the lost generation?” No: I’ve just ‘typed’ this, haven’t I?

    • David B.
    • David, I also remember seeing the Lisa at that very same show. Small world, a long time ago. I was very impressed but I seem to remember it cost something like £6,000 which was an even huger amount than it now seems. And the Telex…. I forgot to mention the Telex. We had one in our office, of course, and the punch-tape memory was a marvel, even though it dated to before the War. We used to use it for sending drafts of press releases to clients who would then telephone with corrections. Then the whole thing had to be retyped onto a stencil prior to Roneoing the release. PR agencies have it easy these days.

      • Kerchunk ..another telex memory comes to mind..

        I read in the London Evening Standard (..this must have been about 1979 or 1980..) that Akio Morita, the chief of Sony, had demonstrated in Tokyo something called a ‘MAVICA’, short for ‘MAgnetic VIdeo CAmera’ ..a camera with a video tube or CCD inside which saved still pictures onto (rigid floppy) discs.

        Having shown it in Tokyo – it was a prototype shown just to the press – I wondered if I could get a chance to see it (I was then working on “Practical Photography”).

        This was before mainstream email (..though there were enthusiasts’ services, like ‘Fidonet’..) and I didn’t think that ringing Japan was much use, as I didn’t speak the language.

        So I looked up Sony’s telex number, and sent Mr Morita a telex to say that I’d like to see it, try it, and to write about it.

        Next year, I got an invitation to the Savoy when he brought it – along with half-a-dozen Sony engineers – to London, and I did get my hands on it. After 17 years’ development it eventually appeared in shops, and I got one for Christmas 1997!

    • I remember this. Wasn’t it a Kickstarter project (or a Nonstarter as it has turned out)? There is a raft of typewriter-style keyboards that click and clack with the best of them, just waiting to be hooked up to your computer.

  2. Mike – your photo reminded me that I still have my original Olympia Travel DeLuxe — now it lives in a cupboard in our Burgundy cottage and I pull it out from time to time, look at it nostalgically, and replace it in favour of my MacBook Pro. I can’t bear to get rid of it though.

  3. Absolutely fascinating article, more so as I have grown up with these items in my childhood, but more modern methods in my adulthood.

    I have to say though, one of the best skills I have ever learnt was to touch type to 40 words per minute – not huge, but makes life easy in todays world.

    I oddly don’t use siri, or other more modern methods yet.

    • I agree. I taught myself to touch type at a very early age, and it has stood me in good stead throughout my life. I can’t imagine keeping up a blog such as Macfilos without being able to type at speed.

  4. I am one of those who never learned to type. I had secretaries so now I am tediously slow hunting and pecking. I cannot think and write effectively on a computer due to effort and slow pace. I have to hand write and then type but I wish I had a secretary that could blast my writing in – retired from corporate world. Also, a great secretary can fix grammar!

  5. Not quite totally eclipsed …. I retired from the motor industry a few years ago but the completion of the multi-part pre-carboned official form to first-register and tax vehicles was often by typewriter. An on-line system has been brought in for the normal case but a quick phone call established that the need still arises. And I am pleased to see that paragraphs 4.3 and 7.3 of the official instructions issued by the Department for Transport ((found at http://assets.dft.gov.uk/dvla/V355_290613.pdf) still contain the instruction to use an ‘impact printer or typewriter’. And if we’re talking of ‘obsolete’ technology, a recent encounter with the medical profession shows that the facsimile machine is still alive (but, as ever, not very well in transmitting information). But I haven’t come across a telex since 1978!

    • Nick,

      I ‘computerised’ a shipping company in the mid-to-late eighties (got their ‘bills of lading’ (what was being carried on the vessels) fed into spreadsheets, and ditto what was removed from their warehouses), and telex machines were used exclusively for contact with ports in this country and abroad, as telex communication had as valid a legal standing as a written – (or typed!) – contract, because the transmission and reception was validated at both ends, and email (..and fax, too..) didn’t have that valid legal contractual aspect (..even though fax does provide some proof of reception).

      So telexes were the agreed method for striking shipping contracts through the eighties ..but I’ve no idea about the nineties or beyond!

      • David B.
    • You are right about multi-part forms or even forms in general. Until very recently, with easy annotation of PDF files, a typewriter was a godsend for filling in forms. It’s one of the vestigial uses I had for my Olivetti Lettera 32 which sat on the shelf, ready to pounce on any form that crossed my desk.

  6. Great post Mike, I have been using computers since 1974 so I missed out on the glories of the typewriter.

    Notwithstanding, my first computer kept a paper roll as a record of what the operator had done, but I have mainly been a user of the green screen. I missed the Tipp-Ex revolution too.

    I was reminded recently of its predecessor though. I was standing on a busy train as it pulled out of Loughborough Junction a few months back, when I noticed a white painted wall memory for Sno-Pake. I am not sure whether it was an advert, or whether the company once resided there.

    It was quite amusing to note that the rest of this yellow bricked wall was covered in graffiti that had been roughly painted out with white paint of some sort.

    The SnoPake Ad was untouched.

  7. The soviets invented key logging well before the hazy concept of ‘cybersecurity’. They’d intercept shipments of typewriters bound for Moscow embassies, mill out the transfer bar and insert a miniature device that measured the pitch and rotation of the Selectric’s ball, which is relatively unique. That voltage was digitized and stored until late night, when they were transmitted in a low-power burst to a nearby antenna (a wire tossed down the chimney) that relayed them to a collection system next door.

    Dad had a secretary his entire working career. When working on a laptop, he would look at me and incredulously shake his head, "You can type?" — mostly with awe, but also a tinge of pity for me.

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