August 24, 2009

The typewriter is so romantic.

Last night I dreamed that I went to class — as a student — and found that at my place, there was a manual typewriter. What did that mean? Going back to school, to old things... my obsolescence... a desire to get my hands on writing...

Today, I see — via Boing BoingRick Poyner's "In Memoriam" to his manual typewriter:
... I'm struck by how powerfully its form and image embody and express the idea of writing, as does almost any typewriter. Like the telephone at an earlier phase in its development when it still had a distinct earpiece and mouthpiece at either end of a handle, the fully evolved typewriter is a 20th-century industrial archetype. It feels inevitable, almost elemental, like one of those object types, such as a chair or a fork, that simply had to exist in this universe of forms. Even now (but for how much longer?) a typewriter is the icon to show if you want to convey the idea of a dedicated literary life....

The point, of course, is that the computer has never been a dedicated writing tool — writing is the least of it — and everyone uses them....
Actually, I remember, in the early '80s, when secretaries had big computer-looking things on their desks that were called "word processors"... but I know what you mean....
They are somehow both more marvellous and more ordinary. That's why there isn't a shred of romance in the idea of a writer and his or her personal computer.
Not a shred of romance? I've seen an incredibly romantic photograph of a man with a laptop — a laptop called "Cupid’s bow" — under his arm.

So what are your typewriter memories? Romantic stuff, please. Anything equally romantic with computers? Obviously, you can use a computer to get to real, in-the-flesh human beings, and you can do it quickly... like: right now. With the typewriter, it will be you and the inanimate object for a long time, and that, perhaps, is why we see the romance in the thing. The typewriter is as romantic as a lonely room.


former law student said...

The typewriter is as romantic as a lonely room.

My relationship with my moms old Remington portable was a painful one, as my little finger was not up to the task of typing so many A's. But, should anyone want to have a fling (rekindle an old flame?), the Vermont Country Store can hook you up:

I have fantasized about spending a summer in a rugged cabin near a trout stream, typing my thoughts on a portable by kerosene lamp. (And then taking them home to be scanned in.)

Paddy O. said...

I think the romance with a typewriter has more to do with the romantic memories of young men and women now old who think fondly about their days of struggle and yearning.

The fountain pen, or quill, is significantly more romantic.

The ability to write (as in actually write) is a developed skill, which is then added to the skill of writing to compose a most heart exposing prose.

This is romance in the writing and in the receiving.

What romance was ever propelled by the reception of a typed note, even if it did have that bare personalizing of a signature?

The shape of the letters, big and round or thin and angular, tells much about the person, and evokes emotion by the reader.

This brings romance in some of the most exposing ways possible--not only in a letter of love but also in a letter of, say, political action.

EDH said...


All I remember is the shakes and ringing ears after pulling a cafine-fueled all-nighter typing papers that I could not go back and edit once typed, like I had carved them in stone.

Aside from the romanticised rustic portability of non-electrics alluded to here, I don't miss them.

AllenS said...

Brings back memories of Wite-Out.

David said...

My favorite was a little portable electric. I had it my last two years in college, and I typed all my law school exams in it. Thank God I could because my handwriting was pretty bad. When I first replaced my Smith-Carona manual with the electric, I was disturbed by the hum. But that came to be greatly comforting.

I typed all my love letters to my first great love Phyllis on the Smith-Carona and that electric. She went to school 700 miles away and we wrote hundreds of pages of letters to each other. It's really how we fell in love. The relationship died, partly as a result of some evil adults who disapproved and sabatoged, and our immature inability to overcome the obstacles. But the love remained.

I saw her for the first time in 25 years last month at her sister's funeral, probably only the third or forth time we've been together in 40+ years. We are in our 60's now but she is still beautiful and I was very glad to see her. I was surprised at how strongly the old feelings came back. That's probably the last time we will ever see each other. It's amazing how persistent love can be.

Bissage said...

I don’t get the romance angle. Writing is manufacturing.

But they say that shooting up bug powder gives you a literary high.

Beware the shift keys.

MadisonMan said...

My father-in-law had a CD with that piece of music that includes a typewriter in it. I liked listening to it but always wondered if a 20something would even know what they were hearing.

I'm not sure if Here is Jerry Lewis playing it.

traditionalguy said...

Our romantic feelings arise out of the human effort taken to please another person...Hand written notes on nice cards are the best. So a computer used to create and deliver a message pleasing to another person can also be a very romantic way to engage the Other. It's not cold science, but it is use of a communications channel invented by science for information transfer. Love is also largely an information transfer from the soul (mind, body and will) of one to the soul of the other.

Rockport Conservative said...

I have NO romantic feelings concerning typewriters! None, nada!
Only horrible memories of typing class. I am dyslexic, I transpose even when writing by hand, you can imagine how terribly slow I had to type. I LOVE computers for that reason. I do, however, get a laugh with what spell check would like to replace some actual words.

MadisonMan said...

The Typewriter by Leroy Anderson, I should have added.

Here, done live

blogging cockroach said...

hi professor
hoo boy am i glad i don t have to jump
on a typewriter like my great great great
great great grandfather did and nearly died
several times doing so and i think i missed
a few greats in there oh well a typewriter had
the advantage you could hide between the
keys if mehitabel got a little too frisky
you know how cats can be even with those
who are near and dear and even a little love
tap could have consequences as far as
i am concerned but i don t have to worry about
that now as tommy has no pets except a goldfish
tommy is the boy whose computer i use
anyway i do worry about using this macbook air
which is real easy to hop around on but someone
could come along and snap it shut wham
end of little me in this life unless i can tuck
in next to the flower key which you didn t
have on a typewriter so where s the romance

Lem said...

My father had an electric typewriter with a big hood that opened up like the hood of a car.

I remember waiting for the occasion he had to open it so I could marvel the inside I could not otherwise.

One time I was peering over his shoulder while he typed and red aloud what looked like an error, he was a two finger typist but what did I know.

He stopped, quickly turned around and pushed me away.

howzerdo said...

A beloved aunt (now gone) taught me how to type on an IBM typewriter when I was a kid. I worked for her during the summer, in a business she owned with my uncle. My high school graduation present from my parents was a Smith Corona - and I used it to type papers for other college students for $1 / page. Students procrastinated so much that often I met them at the door of their classrooms and they gave me the money, grabbed the paper, and handed it in (always reminded me of the Olympic torch). They never even glanced at it - I could have typed gibberish. One paper I typed was extremely long, for an upper level undergraduate English class. The student was a cute, bright guy who gave me a few pages at a time, also mostly at the last minute - and he paid double because it was such a nightmare process. When the paper was finished, his gift to me was the book he referenced, an antique copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Ann Althouse said...

"... beloved aunt..."

Be careful about typos!

David said...

The old a/c syndrome.

Joe said...

When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, we had an electric typewriter that did proportional spacing (I think it was an Olivetti. How we actually got it is a mystery to me since my Dad is a total cheap skate. It must have been surplus from GE where he worked.)

MamaM said...

Erasable paper and little boxes of Correct-o-type (1"x2" squares of white-out on plastic) were my unromantic accessories.

Xxxxxxx'ing something out with manual or an electric felt immensely satisfying.

Learning to type 90 WPM with only those methods for correction was considered a feat.

Do I love computers with their delete, cut, copy and paste functions...YES!

former law student said...

The Typewriter by Leroy Anderson, I should have added.

Here, done live

I wonder if every orchestra's percussion section must have a typewriter, just in case.

Googling Leroy Anderson reveals he composed the popular Christmas song Sleigh Ride, as well as the Late Show theme, the Syncopated Clock.

Anthony said...

'Fraid I don't have too many romantic typewriter stories. I don't remember writing too many papers in HS on one and by the time I hit college (1980) we already were getting "word processors".

I do have some fond (sorta) computer memories. I was a computer science major before archaeology, and in those days we still used remote terminals linked to a mainframe or mini. All-in-one units with the green or white phosphor screen, signing up for an hour here, an hour there, sometimes in the middle of the night, to try to finish a program, debugging it, debugging it, debugging it, and then printing it all out on a big line printer on wide green-striped paper.

When I hit grad school, we had PCs and WordPerfect 5.1, which still gives me fond thoughts. Brilliant program, WP 5.1 was. I wrote TONS on a little IBM PC clone, sitting in my little office, banging away on a clicky keyboard, with a monochrome green screen and printing it all out on fanfold forms fed into a dot matrix printer. Some of the other grad students had the little toy Macintosh's, but we mostly ignored them.

When I did my MA thesis I was doing the statistics on my little computer and recall running cluster and factor analyses on only like 120 cases, but it took 45 minutes.

I guess I have fond memories because, in a sense, with those early, simple computers and programs, the software didn't really get in the way of the work. It was just words and columns of numbers on the screen. Matter of fact, I think either WordPerfect or Lotus' Ami Pro (another smashing word processor) specifically designed it so that it looked like a blank page to write on without all the gunk on the screen that Word had.

I could wax prosaic on this for hours. . . .

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Not romantic but nostalgic.

Way back when I was playing the guitar and singing. I performed professionally and also had a side business teaching guitar to children.

I put together a book of work or play book for myself and later myself and my partner. On Onion Skin Paper too...It contained the songs that we would choose from for the various performances and with chord notations as well as other notes on how we customized the music. For students I did a similar thing that also had graphic illustrations of the fingering positions and made a little workbook which then was copied, mimeographed.

All of this on a manual typewriter. I still have the originals of those books and occasionally even refer to them when I want to play an old song that need to be refreshed on the chord progressions.

I think about several things on those times with the typewriter. How cool and happy I felt when learning new songs and innovating the music. That I was a really crappy typist. That my left pinky would hurt from the typing. That it was really difficult to get anything copied in those days. That we are so lucky now that we don't have to use white out or erase tabs and type backwards to correct mistakes. Yay for spell check!! That we have so much better technology today. And that it would be really neat to have a typewriter again just in case.

wv = tweepyr lol

Ann Althouse said...

"hat my left pinky would hurt..."

Ha ha. Yeah, I used to think way too much about how bad it was that they put the "A" where they did on the QWERTY keyboard.

Steven said...

Well, I wasn't into the double digits, age-wise, before we owned a computer (and printer). So, I'm pretty short on romantic memories of typewriters, despite being in my thirties.

I was taught typing in 7th grade on an electric typewriter; they replaced them with computers the next year.

MamaM said...

Oops! The challenge was to focus on Romantic Memories.

A manual typewrite is an external machine. What stands out for me is the simple beauty and dependability of the mechanics involved. It represents a form of excellence and potential from a past era.

I wonder if some of the romance is attached to the user's ability to control and easily make use of an understandable mechanical process.

I still have my 37 year old manual Hermes, stashed in the closet,oiled and cleaned, awaiting the day when it might again be needed. If that were to happen, this machine won't require anything other than my energy and a piece of paper in order to function as it was designed.

There is something beautiful, sad and romantic in that awareness

AllenS said...

I have a sinking feeling that when Obama promises green jobs, he's really talking about typewritter repair people.

WV: echro

A distant echo from a foreign land.

blake said...

Wrote my first book on a typewriter.

You can imagine how quickly I seized on word processing software. (Even wrote some.)

There was a poem; I can't remember how it goes exactly. But it compared pencil to typerwriter.

Pencils were silent, silver dreaming while typewriters were chattering teeth...

But I guess in time we can be nostalgic over the thing we were previously lamenting replacing the thing we were nostalgic for before. Or something.

The good old days aren't what they used to be. And what's more, they never were.

mcallen3 said...

My kids had never seen a typewriter. I showed them how the one we were sending off to Goodwill worked. They were enthralled. "You can input ant print AT THE SAME TIME."

What a concept!


Good Times Recordings said...

I'm only 30 but I have used mechanical and electric typewriters--and myriad computers which used cassette tapes, cartridges, floppies, and hard drives--for school assignments and other writing. I want to say that I agree it is nostalgic, but I bet all the folks who made their living with a typewriter would have loved to have the editing and publishing possibilities that sit inside that little aluminum MacBook. I sure love mine :)

With the number of revisions I have to go through on 50+ page documents I create for work, I could never imagine typing it over each time, or--woe to whoever had to read it--writing it out by hand. We still have a few typewriters in the office, for filling out standard forms. It's funny to hear them every once in a while. Although now all the forms are in editable PDF's so even those are going away.

WV: ingra

Close to being an ingrate for going against the nostalgic mood in this thread

Good Times Recordings said...

..oh yeah my favorite thing about the typewriter as a child was not when I was using it to type an essay, but when I'd sit down to it and pretend to be a newsman in a hat with a cigar, or a writer in a room with a window that overlooks something cool. I'd try to write something meaningful like the did. I never did :) There is a discipline, or something, that you need have with the typewriter because you have to commit to what you put down. Perhaps having to complete the thought before you commit it to paper is a valuable skill. And the red squiggly line underneath incorrect type is killing people's spelling abilities!

Kirk Parker said...


Oh, so your dad is the guy who typed the TANG memo, eh?

My favorite typewriter memory--errr, make that dis-favorite, actually, and not romantic at all, except in the Lives of Others sense--is the fact that we had to have an official government typewriter permit to own one in Sudan.

kynefski said...

I learned to type on Selectrics, and used a manual typewriter through early adulthood.

I bought an electronic typewriter in the mid-'80s when I had some serious writing to do and didn't want to mess with word processing as it was at the time. One of the cool things about that typewriter was that, with a separate interface, you could use it as a printer. In the early '90s, I bought the interface and used the typewriter as a printer when I wanted my correspondents to assume that I employed a secretary. Nothin' like hard type on paper.

Fat Man said...

I hated typewriters. Without the correction tools of the computer, I cannot use a keyboard in a productive way. To me typewriters were instruments of torture, utterly devoid of romantic value.

Wombat Rampant said...

I still have lust in my heart for the IBM Selectric II typewriters with the replaceable type balls and the ribbon cartridges. Whenever I see one in an office where I'm temping, I have to resist the urge to wave and say "Hello, old friend!"

comatus said...

Joe, I'm pleased someone else remembers IBM's pre-Uniball one-and-a-half-spacer. What a clever invention. I loved it to death.

I won't bore you with my Underwood #9, except that my dad is 87 and can still do 35 WPM using the Army two-finger speed system. You try it.

I do want to mention that my son is studying advanced physics at a noted academy, and, due to honor code restrictions, can only use scientific calculators with no on-board memory, and must show all his work on daily homework. He called the other night to ask if my slide rule had an LL scale. He and a classmate have secretly been doing field equations on log-logs they made themselves, out of paper.

I sent him a 1959 Pickett. I reckon with that, a Facit manual, and a full packet of Celebrated Bengal Slices pipe tobacco, those boys can get us to Mars.

T. said...

Boy, I must really be old-fashioned then...I prefer my grandfather's old Underwood #5 (cica 1928) for creative writing. I've been using it for 35-years with just cleaning and new ribbons. The long-strokes and slower pace regulates my thoughts...whereas the PC keyboard encourages sloppy thinking (and typing) and no attention to correct speeling. (sic) Using a long-stroke manual is akin to ex-temperaneously speaking aloud in a natural voice...there's a pace and rythm

I keep a very fine Olivetti portable in my home office, and the ancient Underwood #5 and and post-war Olympic portable at the office.

And while I quite fluent in OpenOffice's Swriter, I have been known to OCR-scan body-text into documents that I've composed on the manual typewriter first.

And just try to type-out ONE mailing label, or fill out a Fedex or Express Mail multi-part label on your laptop. Bwahahaha....

old_grouch said...