Unexpected Interest

October 17th, 2007

A few days ago, I wrote about my recent purchase of an old Smith-Corona manual typewriter built in 1944. Terah and I were at an antique store, and it was $25 and sorta an impulse buy.

Since then, something unexpected has happened: I’m getting interested in using manual typewriters.

I’ve been busily tracking down ribbons (Nukote BW277 doesn’t work on it, even though their website says it does), typing paper (business-supplies.com has it at a decent price with free overnight shipping on most orders over $50), and various tidbits of knowledge (such as: what does the lever numbered 0 to 6 beneath the right ribbon spool do?)

Today I went to a local office supply store. Not OfficeMax or OfficeDepot — they do carry ribbons for typewriters of this era, but not the right ones for my particular machine. But the store that has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1899 on Main Street, where it remains.

And, surprise, they had the ribbon I need!

It seems that typewriters are experiencing a certain resurgence in popularity. People that have computers — and perhaps never knew a world without them — are buying typewriters. Because of interest, novelty, or even usefulness. There are quite a few typewriter repair shops that still exist, most of them happy to work on typewriters up to a century old.

So why am I excited about it?

Part of it is the fun of making a really old piece of technology work.

Perhaps part of it is knowing that I’ll be typing at a machine that was built the same year as D-Day, the year when the first German city fell in World War II. Part of it is knowing that this 40-pound machine was built to last, in an era before planned obsolescence. And, to a certain extent, it has outlasted its manufacturer.

Part of it is curiosity: will I write differently on a typewriter than a computer? It seems that most people that have tried both say that their writing is different on a typewriter, and often better. Perhaps it is the difficulty of editing that forces more rigorous thought up front.

Christopher Watkins wrote:

[Manual typewriters] just plain shame me into working. As with any fine instrument, they’re made to be used, their very design bespeaks this, and there’s been many a night I’ve caught one of my typewriters glaring sternly at me from the shadows, implicating me in a grand failure to honor their structural destinies. Chagrined and challenged, I dutifully sit down to see what I can do to contribute to the machine-age legacy I’ve been called on to uphold. . .

When you sit down to write a song at the piano, you’re going to write differently than if you have a banjo in your lap. And if one instrument isn’t bringing the magic and the muse, maybe another will. Typewriters are the same; they make me write in a different fashion, and also provide an alternate trigger for inspiration. And as an electric guitar is different from an acoustic steel-string guitar is different from a nylon-string classical guitar is different from a national steel resonator guitar; so does each individual typewriter differ. My Underwood is different from my Royal is different from my Remington is different from my Corona is different from my Hermes. And if one isn’t giving me the juice, another might.

Brian Drake added (emphasis mine):

Or you print out the document again because someone misplaced it. Misplaced it! When we were on typewriters, let me tell you, no one misplaced a hundred-page contract! That meant another two days of typing, and tying up at least two secretaries to get it done then. . .

Gore Vidal said he could tell when a book had been written on a word processor. I can, too. Sometimes I can see the cut-and-paste.

I’ve worked as a professional proofreader and copyeditor, and I can attest that the computer has not led to better writing. What it has led to is more writing, acres and acres of it. Books have grown fatter and fatter while their content grows slimmer and slimmer.

These seem to resonate well. More typewriter essays here.

And perhaps a typewritten blog post or two, once I try out my new ribbon.

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  1. Kevin Mark

    I remember when I was in High School and I finally got an electric model. There is simply nothing like the sound of a typewriter. It make you feel like the writers you have read about of a certain era: Hemmingway, terkel, Vidal, Burrows. When I had a Mac, I added an extension that made each keypress echo that familiar sound. I wish I had it for my Gnu system! Clickity. Clackity.


  2. cliff

    Isn’t the lever for a lightness and darkness setting? Not that I would remember a machine that old.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yes, that is what I’ve been told. It doesn’t seem to have much of a practical effect on this model though.


  3. Tore Sinding Bekkedal

    I have recently come across a rather modern typewriter, the small, electronic kind, with an 8-character LCD buffer. I have started bringing it to school for exams, since my handwriting is awful, and we are not allowed to use computers, lest we use the interwebs.

    I am extremely happy with it. I have an IBM Selectric. Typewriters, electric or otherwise, are beautifully and artfully crafted pieces of (electro)mechanical engineering. They become all the more fascinating when used as a teleprinter!

    Using a computer with a teleprinter, or using a glass TTY without a backspace feature, does make you a little less rash in what you type in, and makes you think more about what you do. The satisfying “clunk” which imprints your letter on the paper gives a quite beautiful air of finality to every letter you type.

    Still reading your blog experiment with interest. Keep it up, I might do the same!


  4. cliff

    Dan Rather could use that machine when he makes up news stories.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    You may actually be right: [url=http://staff.xu.edu/~polt/typewriters/bush.html]click here[/url]


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