Technological Nostalgia: The Typewriter

There is no writing implement that symbolizes the profession of writing quite like the typewriter. In classic movies, journalists often write their assignments on a typewriter. The movie “The Shining” has the main character, a frustrated writer, type the words “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again. Event in recent works such as “The Simpsons”, when Homer became a food critic he writes his articles on a typewriter. Even after the invention of the word processor, the typewriter is still recognized by almost everyone despite being obsolete.

Even though the typewriter is almost synonymous with the profession of writing, it is a recent invention. The first commercially available typewriter was put on the market in 1873 by the Remington company, which up until that point was an firearms manufacturer. It was originally intended to be used by clerks to dictate or transcribe documents, not for creative writing purposes. Early on, people did not use a typewriter themselves, but hired a typist to type for them. The reason was that learning to type is an arduous task, something most people would avoid if they can pay someone else to do it for them. Eventually many people saw the value in being able to write quickly and legibly and started learning how to type themselves. Mark Twain was the first to write a book on a typewriter, and it caught on from there.

With advances in technology, the typewriter is no longer the fastest way to get an idea from the mind onto the page. Computer keyboards, because they are not as limited by the physics of mechanical gears and linkages, can be much faster. With computers, you can have predictive text. Chorded keyboards, which are used by clerks in courts, can be even faster. Finally, all this might eventually be replaced by speech-to-text software, or some kind of advanced brain-to-computer interface that can literally read your mind by detecting brain waves.

However, there is something romantic about the physicality of using a typewriter. In order to type a letter, you have to press down hard on the key, and you feel the strain in your fingers every time you type a letter. There is also something special about the sound the machine makes. When you write on a computer your work is accomplished in silence, but working with a typewriter you are almost announcing to the world that you are accomplishing something creative. Each time the typebar hits the paper make it makes a very loud clacking sound, each time you reach the end of a line a bell rings. Also, there is some satisfaction in knowing that you are writing a book the same way many great writers before you did, like Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway.

In recent years there has been a revival in typewriters, and at the risk of sounding like a hipster, I was participating in this trend even before it was a trend. In around the year 2006, I bought a typewriter off eBay. It is a Smith-Corona, and it is not in very good condition. The machine has this yellow tint that comes from age, the platen (the roller that feeds the paper into the machine) is severely dented after years of use, parts of the return carriage keep falling off, some of the letters on the typebars had been intentionally damaged, and none of the capital letters align correctly with the platen when I engage the caps lock. But the machine cost $30, which is a bargain. Despite all these problems all the mechanisms in the machine work smoothly, therefore I decided to keep it.

The problem with using a typewriter in a modern environment is that your work does not immediately get born into a digital environment. You can’t simply copy and paste your typewritten document onto your website, but have to go through an elaborate process of scanning it and then using software to turn it into text. This is somewhat more challenging than what I am used to.

But there are advantages. When you are typing on a typewriter, you do not get distracted easily. You can’t open YouTube on a browser and forget to write your book, or if you do the sound of the typewriter will drown out YouTube. Also, since you know it is difficult to delete text, you are forced to think about what you will type more carefully before you commit your words to paper, so you will make fewer mistakes. All these benefits are at the cost of having sore fingers when you are done.


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