Home Opinion Authors and their typewriters: From Salinger to Christie

Authors and their typewriters: From Salinger to Christie

Agatha Christie searching for clues (Image from Oz Typewriter)

The internet is like a flea market. You never know what you are going to find once you start browsing the stalls. Consider at YouTube, for instance. I love grazing, following the algorithm as it suggests more content on a subject I’ve shown interest in. It has a satisfying tendency to drill down on my enthusiasms and take me ever deeper into the esoteric byways of any given subject.

Agatha Christie searching for clues (Image from Oz Typewriter)
Agatha Christie searching for clues (Image from Oz Typewriter)

One such subject is the typewriter. I’ve mentioned my interest in typewriters before—after all, they played a huge role in my career yet have now almost completely disappeared from daily life. In particular, I’ve referenced Robert Messenger’s Oz Typewriter blog on a couple of occasions.

Robert has the nose of a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out typewriters stories and manages to keep up a regular flow of fascinating material. You wonder where it’s all coming from, but he never ceases to draw me in for a good read.

Master of one

In the past, such ultra-enthusiasm had few outlets. People such as Robert can produce tremendously detailed articles for a worldwide audience, thanks to the internet. No longer are we shackled to the commercial, advertising-supported mass media. Instead of listening to the Jacks of all trades, we can enjoy the opinions of the Masters, even in a subject as oddball as the typewriter.

This morning I saw that Robert (who is in Australia, as you guess from the name of the blog, so he had a head start on Macfilos) has produced a long and fascinating article on the use of typewriters in the literary world, among publishers but primarily among authors of the past. I don’t know how he manages it, but he has found pictures of authors from J.D.Salinger to Jack London, Agatha Christie and William Faulkner in the process of creating on their typewriters.

All Creatures Great and Small author James Herriott at work on his Olivetti Lettera 32 (Image from Oz Typewriter)
All Creatures Great and Small author James Herriott at work on his Olivetti Lettera 32 (Image from Oz Typewriter)

For them, the typewriters was an essential tool of the trade, just as everyone now uses a computer. It was a vast improvement on handwriting and must have been a transforming experience for typesetters whose job it was to turn authors’ scribbles and corrections into print.

These days authors have it relatively easy, with outstanding software such as Scrivener and Ulysses to plan, store references and write in a structured fashion. Corrections can be made instantly, without the need to re-type the entire manuscript as was done in the past.

I am in awe of writers of the past, typing drafts, correcting them, re-typing them and re-correcting. It’s the sort of stuff we think nothing of these days.

This fascinating feature on Oz Typewriter brings the world of the 20th Century author to life and is well worth a look. Who knows, you could become a convert and join me in nurturing a love of typewriters.


  1. .
    (This would look better in monospaced ‘Courier’, really..)

    Being mad about typewriters for some reason when I was at school I clipped a coupon for ‘more information’ – I thought it would be just information – about some typewriter I saw in ..which magazine would it have been? ‘Good Housekeeping’?.. some mag, anyway [I was twelve] and one evening when I was upstairs doing homework my father called me down: a salesman had just arrived – I’d heard his car pull up – and wanted to show me all the details of some fancy – and rather expensive – massive great Remington, was it?

    I was rather embarrassed, and said “I only wanted a leaflet”.

    My Auntie Celia, who worked for Brother (who were then making, or selling, typewriters) sent me leaflets, and let me borrow typewriters from the firm, and I regularly used to borrow our next-door-neighbour Ernest Moritz’s German ‘AZERTY’ ‘Erika’-brand typewriter (if you’re in the UK, he was the grandfather of BBC TV News’ Northern Correspondent Judith Moritz – whose father John I used to play with when we were nine). (And even if you’re not in the UK.)

    One day, around 1972 – well, late afternoon, really – I was standing at a bus stop in Hampton, Middlesex, thinking “Why doesn’t one of these car drivers stop? ..Each car has just one person in it ..you’d think that – as I’ve been waiting here at least half-an-hour – at least one of them might stop and offer me a lift.”

    And the next car stopped. I got in, and the driver asked me where I was going, and where I’d just come from.

    (..Wait for it ..wait for it..)

    I said I was going to Kingston, and I’d come from the boatyard further upstream at ‘Thorneycroft Island’, and I was thinking of taking an evening-school course in navigation. “Oh we run evening classes in navigation; I’m in charge of extra-mural classes for Hounslow [a London borough] ..why not take one of ours? My name’s Michael Friesner by the way”.

    “Michael Friesner? Why, I’d borrowed my Uncle Hymie’s [- told you it was coming! -] typewriter when I was twelve, and he asked me to bring it back because Michael Friesner wanted to borrow it!” ..I’d met (the same) Michael Friesner in north Manchester, twelve(?) years before, when I’d taken back my Uncle Hymie’s typewriter – after borrowing it for a month.

    My OWN typewriter – we-ell, the one I used every day on ‘Practical Photography’ – was an Olivetti or an Olympia ..I think the small, sleek, low Olivetti Lettera 22 – made in Glasgow, it says in a current eBay listing!.. with which I hammered or pecked out three years’ worth of articles on lenses, flashguns, cameras, film, development, photographers, camera shops, and buying cameras secondhand. When I left ..to come back down to London to join the firm’s computer mags.. they gave me the typewriter for ever!

    ..And I later gave it to my father for writing his summaries of what he was doing – volunteering – for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in his retirement.

    And on my iPod ..and on my iPhone.. playing right now? Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter”. Diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-id, diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-iddle-id; *ping!*..

    • Great anecdote, David. I still have a Letter 32 on the shelf best my desk and, below, my “new” Olympus SM8. Trouble is, I have to think of reasons to use them. Perhaps I should have written this article on the SM8 and then published it as a facsimile. I was too lazy, however. Maybe I will do it and add it!

  2. I still have my Olympia Traveller Deluxe S bought in the 70s, and I leave it in my Burgundy cottage for the emergencies when the power goes out or the internet goes down — which is often. In fact I even look forward to its heavy clunk and ratchet sounds – they make me feel like a writer again rather than a computer programmer

  3. My first typewriter was a wooden cased Underwood portable, bought used for about £5 just in the late 1940s. Its keys stuck, unfortunately, and I couldn’t afford to have it serviced, while still a teenager. Some ten or so years later, I bought a new Imperial Good Companion with Courier italic type. Why italic you might well ask. I seem to recall it was the only version available when it became affordable for me.

    The Imperial came with a sixteen-page instruction leaflet, ‘How to Learn to Type’. I spent a wet weekend working through the simple exercises, doing my best to avoid mistakes. One mistake meant restarting each two-line exercise and typing it perfectly, twice. I practised typing for an hour, followed by domestic chores or meals for an hour, right through the weekend. By Sunday evening, I could touch-type all except the top row of numerals and function keys. My incentive? I had a multi-thousand word thesis to write! To this day I retain the ability to touch type, apart from the top row of keys. And I still have my old Good Companion typewriter.

  4. Ah David A
    I learned to type for the same reason – a multi thousand- word thesis to write, I also managed the number keys, and after a bit of a life crisis the thesis was packed in a box and I started temping for Desi in Notting Hill Gate, after 9 months I could do 90 words a minute (including audio typing, telex and reading/modifying telex tape) I became rather in demand and earned relatively good money (I guess this was 1975). The most difficult typing job was doing tables at Commonwealth house . . should have been fine but they had proportionally spaced IBM typewriters which made the columns of figures a nightmare (1 was one space and 2 was 2 and w was 3). But by then the IBM golfball was ubiquitous and lovely to use . . . but I have to say I was never a typewriter buff .

    But I can still touch type properly and quite fast . . .


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