I proofread part of a school paper for my teenage granddaughter a couple weeks ago, at 11 p.m. the night before the paper was due. I later learned that she stayed up all night finishing the paper, and my first reaction was, “Why did she wait until the last minute when she was out running around all those other nights?” Then I remembered that in my youth I did the same thing.
I skipped a geology class in college once because a paper was due, one that I threw together at the last minute but had yet to type. I asked the secretary at work if she had time to type it, because I was a somewhat slow typist and was slowed more by my non-electric Royal portable typewriter. But the secretary was busy, so I skipped school and stayed home to type.
My granddaughter had it relatively easy, at least from a technological standpoint. She could make changes to her heart’s content on the computer and print only when she was ready. With my typewriter, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I had to type a finished report from a handwritten draft. It makes me feel like my grandparents, knowing that my grandchildren and some of my co-workers have never dealt with erasing a letter on a piece of paper that is loaded on a platen, using a stick eraser with a brush on one end or a round wheel eraser mounted in a metal axle that has a brush attached to the opposite end, the brush used to remove eraser droppings from the paper, keeping those eraser bits out of the workings of the typewriter. Those co-workers probably don’t know about KoRecType, those little pieces of white paper that you inserted in the typewriter in front of the offending mistake.
You typed the same wrong letter over the mistake, the white paper left a white impression, and you retyped the correct letter. It was time-consuming and frustrating. Of course, you never made corrections on a resume or important letter. One little mistake, and you started all over again. It was enough to make you scream.
In spite of these problems, I still like typewriters. I love the convenience of computers and enjoy the ease of making changes, but I feel that I’m missing a connection to reality when I type on a computer. Only the keys feel real; all else is electronic information and symbols on a screen. I like the mechanical aspect of typewriters, the satisfying touch and sound of pushing keys and seeing, feeling and hearing the letters hitting the page. I think that’s why some older people pound computer keyboards; they developed a heavy touch on manual typewriters and never got over it. My boss at my last job was like that; he hammered those computer keys like John Henry with his sledge.
I entered office work when computers were taking over, so I never got to use typewriters in any but a home setting. I see old movies where a typewriter, not a computer, occupies a desk, next to the dip pen and the bottle of ink, and I wish I could work with those tools, where no electronic lights create artificial glows and all the clocks had hands.
Another thing younger people, probably even most older people by now, don’t understand is the revolution that the typewriter brought about. The first patent for a mechanical writing machine was that applied for by Henry Mill in 1714 to the British Patent Office. No drawing of the machine exists, and it was many years before a successful typewriter was developed. William A. Burt of Detroit patented the first American machine in 1833, Charles Thurber of Worcester, Mass., patented the typewriter in 1843, and many American attempts followed, until Christopher Sholes developed a successful machine.
Sholes, of Milwaukee, worked with Samuel Soule on a numbering machine, and a man named Carlos Glidden suggested that they develop their ideas into a typewriter. Sholes left after a few months, and James Densmore of Meadville, Pa., as financial backer, secured the patent. The machine was marketed as the Sholes and Glidden Typewriter, and in 1873 the Remington Arms Co. bought the rights for $12,000. Early machines printed only majuscules, and minuscules were introduced in 1877. It was the first successful typewriter and came to be called the Remington.
All the early machines had type bars in semi-circle beneath the carriage, and the type struck the platen on the underside of the carriage, forcing the operator to raise the carriage to see the written line. A visible writing machine was introduced in 1883, using a down stroke, and in 1897 a front-stroke machine was introduced, that type soon taking the lead. The portable came along in 1912.
“Modern business owes much to the typewriter. In fact, the typewriter has radically transformed modern business,” says my 1955 edition of Encyclopedia Americana, in a decade when typewriters and fountain pens ruled the office and computers and ballpoint pens were in their infancy. “The typewriter was also the main factor in introducing women into business life,” said EA.
EA doesn’t explain why the typewriter allowed women to enter the office en masse, but before the typewriter, men ruled the office, and correspondence and records were written by hand, in the flowing style called Spencerian. It was imperative that men wrote legibly, and they did, even as they wrote voluminously. “Parsons’ Hand-Book of Business and Social Forms,” copyrighted in the 1880s and 1902, starts with a 50-page chapter on penmanship. “The acquirement of a good, clear, legible style of writing may be properly called the corner-stone of a correct business education, and may well claim the attention of every young man or young woman.” (This contradicts the EA statement, which I think means that women entered the office world in greater numbers, not that they were totally absent.) “Good penmen are always in demand, and good positions are often secured by those whose greatest recommendation is their accomplishment in this art. It has often proved a stepping-stone to success.” (I hope certain of my co-workers are paying attention.) Parsons makes brief mention of the typewriter in a chapter on short-hand, mentioning the “demand for those skilled in the practice of short-hand and the use of the type-writer, which is constantly increasing as their usefulness becomes apparent.”
I missed the era of the typewriter by a hair’s breadth. People a few years older than me learned to write with fountain pens, which were unknown to me until I got interested in calligraphy, and they worked with typewriters.
Yes, computers are superb tools, but what have we lost? We rely more and more on technology that removes us from the real world and connects us to electronic readouts and glowing screens.
I long for the days when offices were made of wood, the sound of clacking typewriters filled the air, pens were filled with ink from glass jars or dipped into those jars, women wore dresses and men wore vests with their suits. We cast aside outdated technology as we rush on to the latest weapon, and one day we look back and those old typewriters and pens are antiques that fill us with nostalgia. Not me — I switched from ballpoints and roller pens to fountain pens, I still have my portable Royal from 1974, and I’m hanging on to it.
This is my first typewriter, the Royal Sabre. The owner’s manual says, “Get set for an exciting new typing experience with the new Sabre. Trim, lightweight, modern as tomorrow.” It was made in the mid-1970s by Royal Typewriter Co. of Hartford, Conn.; I received it for Christmas 1974. The owner’s manual says revised 10/72.
The Royalite came in a soft carrying case. A number on the back of the manual, 50M8-’59, makes me think it was made in 1959. It was made by Royal McBee Corp. of Port Chester, N.Y.
I think the Smith-Corona Clipper was made in 1949 or 1950. It’s the brown typewriter shown above. Its housing is made of metal, unlike the later plastic portables. The owner’s manual has the number 5-50, which may mean 1950. The Coronmatic is an electric model probably from the 1970s. The black Royal with the straight top was probably built in 1933 or 1934; I think it is a model H10. The Royal with the curved opening was probably built in 1926 or 1927; its serial number starts with Y-35. On the back is an emblem advertising “Like-Nu” Regal Rebuilt Typewriters, Regal Typewriter Co. Inc., 75 Varick St., N.Y., N.Y. An emblem on the right shift key also shows the Regal name.