Remember Typewriters?

Remember typewriters?

Image courtesy J. Mayer via Technabob via Creative Commons
Sculpture by Jeremy Mayer (jeremymayer.com), Image via Technabob (technabob.com)

I do.

The final assignment for my seventh grade English class was a research paper on William Shakespeare.  We were given months to work on it, and the night before it was due I thought I should probably start my research or at least take a look at the assignment sheet.  Aside from the usual admonitions about structure, sources, and spelling, there was a direction I had never seen: “All papers must be typed!  No exceptions!!”  And underneath that was something I had seen before:  “No extensions will be given!  No exceptions!!”

Typed?  I had seen typewriters in movies.  All of my papers up until then had been handwritten, and it was still the time where only extremely nerdy families had computers.  This typing requirement put a ripple in my usual last-minute drill.  I found my mother in the kitchen consolidating boxes of cereal and asked her if we had a typewriter.

“I think there’s one in the basement.  Who knows if it still works.  Why do you ask?”

“I have to type a research paper on William Shakespeare.”

“And dare I ask when this paper is due?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Of course.  Well, I think I last saw it in the basement under a bunch of your old lunch boxes.  When are you going to throw those things out?”

“Um, never.”

Underneath the moldy and dusty lunch boxes was a moldy and dusty plastic covering under which lay a somewhat less moldy and dusty typewriter.  It was large and black like a Rolls Royce and at first I thought the carriage return was a hood ornament.

With the help of a neighbor I hauled it up to my room and removed the covering.  I was afraid to touch it, and as I plugged it in I felt a little like Dr. Frankenstein.

The machine whirred and I pressed one of the keys.  The resulting sound was a like a gunshot, a short staccato pop and I checked the opposite wall for holes.  I hit a few more keys, and figured if I could get used to the sound of Hungry Hungry Hippos I could get used to this. After a few minutes of working on my paper I realized something was wrong and had to visit my mother again.

“Mom, where does the paper come out?” I asked.

“It doesn’t,” she said.  “You have to load typewriter paper.  What have you been typing on all this time?”

“Um, never mind.”

 I loaded in paper from my spiral notebook but the mangled edges looked like the work of a fifth grader, so I had to persuade my mother to drive me to the office supply store for some typewriter paper.

Typing on typewriter paper was a lot more effective.  Then I accidentally spelled “Stratford-upon-Avon” with a “Q” and discovered that the correction tape was missing, and again we were off to the office supply store.  Using a typewriter apparently required a full tank of gas.

Not five minutes after our return the ink dried up.  I could see letters being embossed on the paper, and considered filling the indentations with pen.  Luckily my mother still had her coat on and again we went to the office supply store.

But alas, the ribbon was not in stock.  “We really don’t carry stuff for typewriters anymore,” the manager said.  “But we’d be happy to order it for you.  When’s your paper due?”

We tried another store but the manager there just laughed at me.  It was getting late.  Stores would be closing and I did not know what I was going to do.  I needed this time to be thinking about making the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on Shakespeare sound like my own words, not having my mother drive me all over Long Island looking for typrewriter ribbon.  Writing with a quill would have been easier than this.

Somehow my father had gotten wind of my dilemma and took me to the working typewriter at his office.  I typed my paper while my father sat in the waiting room reading a book titled You’re Almost There: Parenting Through Adolescence.  It was close to midnight when I finished, and from my father’s face I gathered that we would be not going for ice cream.  My parents bought me a word processor the following year, and we traded in the typewriter for an Acura.

I just read that the last typewriter factory in the world, located in Mumbai, India, is closing its doors forever.  I am sure that a lot of people are lamenting this, people who grew up with typewriters, got used to thinking with rapidfire gunshots coming with every depression of their fingertips, people who got a thrill from hearing the ‘ding’ that told them to hit the carriage return, people who enjoyed the challenge of knowing which stores stocked their particular ribbon and correction tape.  People who are not me.

Image credits: Sculpture by Jeremy Mayer, Image via Technabob

0 Replies to “Remember Typewriters?”

  1. When I was in college, I bought a typewriter for $5 at a Goodwill with the intention of feeling very Hemingway-esque when I wrote papers. That lasted until I used up all the ink. My dad said I wasted five dollars. The nerve!

    • Did you also get drunk while typing and then back-up James Joyce in a bar brawl?
      I think $5 was a very good price for the experience. And what’s the going rate for a typewriter with no ink? It’s got to be at least 50 cents.

  2. I used to hate typewriters because I was always writing about topics I hated on them. This era came before I discovered the joy of words. Then our electric went down and I was forced to use an old manual for a few weeks. You needed a full body warmup before handling the rigor it tool to pound out pages on those keys.

    • I remember I liked the sound of those mechanicals more than the electric. It was a light clickety-clack instead of the idling motor punctuated by gunshots. It was like tap dancing your way through the paper.

  3. I used a typewriter all the way through high school. My older sisters had to take typing in high school and I learned from them, so I’ve been touch typing since I was about seven years old.

    I sometimes think that I should force my students now to type something on an old typewriter, just so I could get them to shut their traps about how ‘hard’ everything is these day. Little wet-behind-the-ears whipper-snappers! (Heh – I love sounding like a grumpy old lady at the ripe age of 40 😉

    I do love old things, however, and am looking forward to taking delivery of an old black Smith Corona from a friend who’s clearing out all of her parents’ old stuff. I also like things that still work, so I plan on using it on occasion, when I’m not talking on my candlestick rotary phone or shooting pictures with my 1960’s rangefinder 🙂

    • I typed all of my high school papers on a Smith Corona and I loved it. The word count would show the top 50 most common words I used and how often I used them. And it used to emit two short beeps when I reached the end of the the line on the little black screen. But my favorite feature of the Smith Corona word processor was pressing “print” when I was done and watching the typewriter component ghost type my work.

      Thank you for bringing up such a fond memory.

      • Mine was more old school than that. Totally manual and even came with a carrying case. Like this: http://tinyurl.com/4275fvq We then upgraded to an electric typewriter, but I never used a word processor unless I was using the on at my friend’s house. When I did get to use hers, it was definitely cool to watch the ghost writing.

        This does make me seem old, doesn’t it? In reality, we were just always the last family on the block to get anything ‘newfangled’. Hell, the Betamax already lost the war before we even got our first VCR! 🙂

  4. I am now in love with you. I started typing at a very young age. In fact, because of this, I never learned how to type proprly and I put my fingers on all the wrong keys, but I am crazy fast. Damned fast. And damned accurate. Except when I am not.

    Like you, I typed my papers all the way through high school and even had to buy a Brother for my first year in college – until they ripped open a building and added these new-fangled things called “Word Processors.”

    I am so glad to meet you! Adding you to my blogroll immediately! 😉

    • Glad to meet you too! I’m happy and honored that Schlabadoo has made your blogroll.

      Through high school I learned where all the keys were and was able to type without looking at the keys. And the first time I ever typed on a Blackberry I was amazed that my thumbs instantly knew where the keys were. I couldn’t type without looking at the tiny keypad, but some key-memory definitely translated from my fingers to my thumbs.

  5. hahah… this article is hilarious because I just bought a typewriter for 65 bucks… I thought it was broke (it maybe) as it double spaces sometimes as you type… but now I (as of today) have a really nice mint shape Olivetti College, only used for ONE MONTH, ten years ago when it was purchased. I have 55 dollars of ribbons which work for both typewriters… oh and did I mention they’re MANUAL? A Smith Corona Super Sterling… and the one I got today, a Olivetti College (red in color) in mint shape, as I mentioned… all in all I have spent 175 dollars between both typewriters and 6 ribbons which I purchased online from the united states. So, how is this funny? I bought a pentium 4 IBM laptop for 160 dollars this month as well…. pretty funny, huh? I paid more for the typewriters and ribbons than a laptop… but you know what, when you get the hang of typewriters they’re really a great Creative outlet. There is just you and the typewriter, no internet, no pc games, no 6 core processor or 24 inch HD monitor to lure you into watching tv… just you and your creative outlet. There is still one kind of Olivetti manual typewriter you can buy new. Even so, it’s odd to think there will be none made. There are however still many places producing typewriter spools. There are also places that repair and restore typewriters, so I don’t think they’ll ever completely disappear. I live in Canada, but for my typewriter parts, ribbons, service, I deal with EBS (Scantracker.com) in the US. Great guys, great service, and more than happy to answer silly questions when you call their 1800 number. Like “how do I put this spool on” or “why is my spool reversing” lol.

    • You’re making me want to go out and get a typewriter now. On my laptop I have a program called “Q10” which turns your screen into a Smith Corona-esque word processor without all the distractions (email, games, etc.) and there is even an option that makes the typewriter sounds with every key stroke, if you like. Thanks for stopping by and giving your totally awesome description of your typewriter odyssey. Nice to know that nothing great ever completely disappears.

  6. No problem. Heh, last night I had a buddy, fellow write come over. We got drunk on Scotch and wrote in round robin style using the new Olivetti College… he also uses typewriters… we’re planning to actually get together with our typewriters and do a double round robin, two stories at once on two different typewriters… If you can get your hands on a quality Manual Typewriter cheap, I’d go for it, they’re really something. We wrote the most bizarre story last night… it’s a cross between Terry Pratchetts Disc World and Animal Farm, haha. If you can get an Olivetti for under 100 bucks in great shape, go for it! Nothing beats the real thing. And Ribbon will still be available for quite a long while yet 🙂

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