In these days of instant messaging, social media and nowhere to hide, I often spare a thought for the humble typewriter. For some reason, typewriters have always been a passion. I taught myself to type, full-qwerty fashion, when I was 14 years old. By the time I became a journalist at the age of 19, I was fleet of finger and could run rings around my colleagues on the qwerty keyboard.
This was a time when female “secretaries” guarded the mythos of keyboard operation. Few men could type unless they were journalists or members of a select few other professions. Not a letter could be sent without the secretary’s fingers hovering over the mysterious keyboard.
Things have now come full circle. The computer, the smartphone and a frenzy of electronic communication have meant that most people are familiar with qwerty at an early age. Everyone is can use the qwerty keyboard to some degree and few wonder the letters are all jumbled up in such a strange fashion. It was not done to slow down typing to avoid clashing keys, as many believe, but was a genuine effort to group letters in the most logical layout for fast typing.
The survival of qwerty is now down to the computer. Many efforts have been made to popularise alternative layouts, but none has succeeded because of the overwhelming dominance of the tried-and-tested layout.
Typewriters always played a big part in my life. When I started work as a journalist for “The Motor Cycle” in 1962, I had the run of a magnificent collection of old typewriters dating back to the Twenties or earlier. Somehow, the office had accumulated at least 25 of the beasts, most of which were sitting unused on top of filing cabinets. I was in my element.
I started with these ancient office machines, such as the Imperial, the Royal or the Remington “Silent”, and then moved on to the electric typewriter. The early models offered power assistance to the keystrokes. Then came the IBM Selectric “golfball” typewriter that created a new revolution.
For the first time, it was possible to swap typefaces (with the more expensive IBM Composer) and, even, achieve justified print-style text and proportional spacing.
Typewriters relied predominately on two monospaced fonts, pica (10 per inch) and elite (12 per inch) and, of course, you couldn’t change from one to the other. I know many people who kept several machines, one for pica, one for elite and one for italic.
Indeed, my grandfather, Harry Evans, was one of those typewriter fanatics and, I feel sure, I have inherited the pica gene from him. I mirror him precisely in my love of typewriters, pens and notebooks. He was a grocer because his father had been a grocer.
He owned a busy shop in Wigan, Lancashire, and some of my first memories were of him serving a string of customers behind his counter. I loved delving into the open dispenser to grab a handful of currants.
In those days, before supermarkets, customers queued at the counter for the personal attention of the grocer. Almost everything, from sugar to butter, to bacon, was loose and had to be measured and packed. Biscuits inhabited large square tin boxes arranged on a wooden framework; the bacon slicer was in constant use, and sugar was dispensed in thick blue bags without marking.
It was the time of rationing, following the war when everything was produced for maximum efficiency. There was little actual choice to be had.
Harry would stand there, indelible purple pencil behind his ear, fetching, carrying and packing all the requirements in greaseproof paper. He would then take the pencil, moisten the tip (to release the indelible ink) and list everything in pounds, shillings and pence on a piece of greaseproof paper. A whole week’s shopping could be had for less than one pound.
When the shutters went up at the end of the day, Harry was transformed and could pursue his more cerebral passions. He was a lover of poetry, he had a musical bent and was a church organist for most of his life. And, perhaps more relevant to this story, he was a keen writer. His writing and his prowess with the keyboard inspired his impressive collection of typewriters, one for every occasion and style of print.
A keen cyclist, he wrote articles for cycling magazines. Every article was typed on wartime-stock paper, using several machines to achieve the best effect, and bound in brown paper. This was wartime make-do during a period when even the most basic of office supplies had disappeared.
Harry also taught himself Pitman’s shorthand, to complete his secretarial ambitions, and he became good enough to teach shorthand at Wigan Technical Collage to a new generation of lady secretaries.
It’s no surprise, then, that I was smitten with the same passions. I surpassed my grandfather in everything but organ playing and shorthand (at both of which I am a miserable failure).
My typewriters became more and more advanced, and I was a dab hand at letter writing: Writing paper, a sheet of carbon and a flimsy backing sheet to take a copy of the original. I was clattering away day and night and, invariably, my best work was done on a full-size office typewriter.
But I was always fascinated by the portable. I carried around a typewriter as I would today travel with an iPad or MacBook. I always needed to be able to turn my thoughts into typescript.
As a result, the lightest and smallest portable was the ideal. There were many designs to choose from, although my favourites were the Olympia SM8/9, a mid-sized “portable” that really doubled for office typewriters, and the svelte Olivetti Lettera 22 and 32.
A few months ago I was introduced to an Australian typewriter blog by Robert Messenger, Oztypewriter and I have been an avid reader ever since. The site specialises in typewriter use, particularly among famous names of the past. Which film star or author used which machine? Who had a gold-plated portable (Ian Fleming, no less) and which typewriters are the ones to own and collect? Wonderful stuff, really.
I was touched to read on Oztypewriter that the Olivetti Lettera 22 has just celebrated its 70th birthday. To mark this occasion, the Italian post office has issued a stamp featuring the popular little writing machine.
The Lettera 22 is one of the most prolific portables ever made and my current version, the later Lettera 32, which is probably a good 40 years old, is typing just as reliably and clearly as it did the day it was born. There aren’t many consumer goods produced these days about which you can say this. Happy seventieth birthday, Olivetti Lettera 22.
On this nostalgic note, Macfilos is closing down for two weeks. There is just one article to come, a fascinating reconstruction of the Swiss Roll journey of 1950. That will be published tomorrow and Macfilos will return on January 4.
We would like to wish all our readers, our band of contributors and our helpmates—in particular, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma and Red Dot Cameras—a happy Christmas and a successful New Year. Let’s hope that 2021 proves to be a better year than the one we have just endured. Unfortunately, London is in strong lockdown again, possibly for the duration of the winter, and opportunities for photography are minimal. We’ll be off to a shaky start.